June 30, 2010

First Thoughts On The USSF

I had to feel for the guys working at the shoeshine concession in Cobo Hall, Detroit’s mammoth convention center, the venue where the second United States Social Forum took place last week. They do okay at the normal run of events booked there--trade shows, union conventions, orthodondists’ gatherings, etc.---but when I asked one guy how many pairs of Lloyd & Haig wingtips he was polishing, he laughed, shrugged and said, “Some you win, some you lose.”

Me, I’m inclined to say the USSF, for all the sneakers and sandals present, was a win overall, but I’m waiting for summations from smarter people and more collective processes to say anything definitive. Instead here are a few initial thoughts on the sucker...

1. The USSF, a national offshoot of the World Social Forum, is probably the best reflection, however distorted, of where the motion for social justice and revolutionary change is at in this country today. There were upward of 9,000 registrants, and a significant number who skated registering entirely. The crowd skewed young, notably younger than the first Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007, and featured a genuinely heartening mix of nationalities.

Organizationally, the great majority who came from outside of Detroit itself were associated with groups from the social movements--tenants, immigrants, environmentalists, education activists, small farmers, etc.

Hundreds were part of what is sometimes called the Party Left--members and sympathizers of organized socialist groups. Throw in the anarchists and you’re into the four figures.

A couple of old friends remarked to me that the labor movement wasn’t there. That’s wrong. True, the showing from the trade union movement was disappointing, though hardly non-existent, but new workers organizations based among the urban and rural poor and especially among immigrants were well represented--Florida alone had good size contingents from the Miami Workers Center and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. This might be an example of the distortion I mentioned, but it is also a look at where the action in the working class currently is and at the likely future of the class struggle in the US.

2. The thing that dismayed me most was the scant attention paid to the deadly occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan being waged by our government, in our name, with our tax dollars. Eric See of Peace Action West pointed out to me within minutes of my arrival that only a dozen of the over 1000 workshops were devoted to understanding and ending the wars. The People’s Movement Assembly (an organizational form to try and concentrate ideas and develop positions at the USSF) about the wars that I attended never had more than 80 people in the room during its 4 1/2 hours. At least 80% were over 50 (or had lived insanely dissolute lives). Despite some thoughtful speakers and a couple of, erm, energetic shall we say, panelists, it was depressing and hard to stay awake in.

This too is a reflection of where the movement is at, and not at all a criticism of Social Forum organizers. Almost anybody who wanted to organize a USSF workshop was approved and the small number of workshops simply confirms the enfeebled and disoriented state of the anti-war movement as a whole.

Michael Zweig of US Labor Against the War mentioned that one striking feature of the workshops he spoke at or attended on the topic was the very low level of participation from young folks. Why, he wondered, were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not on the radar of the bright and dynamic young activists who thronged Cobo Hall?

Veterans For Peace made a point I wish had been taken more seriously by USSF participants. Several members dropped a huge banner from one of Detroit’s many, many abandoned multi story buildings; it read “How Is The War Economy Working For You?” This should serve as a blunt reminder that no matter what we are trying to win or even defend, the money for it is not going to be there if we continue to permit hundreds of billions of dollars to be dumped into these unjust and unjustifiable wars.

3. What is the future of the US Social Forum? For the majority of the attendees, this was the first time at the USSF and an exciting, even life-changing, event. But there was also a sizable contingent who had been at the first one, in Atlanta three years ago. This, it seemed to me, changed the vibe somewhat. Most of the organized groups who came, came to advance their own agenda, whether they were revolutionary socialists or housing activists or an artists' collective. That was true in Atlanta as well, but then nobody had much of an idea of what things would be like, and proceeded more tentatively. This time even the group I belong to, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, pretty generally regarded as an outfit that works and plays well with others, had a meeting the first morning. We went over what each of us would do to advance the effort to bring into being what we are tentatively calling a socialist front in this country--in some ways an organized, ongoing version of the USSF. (Of course, we also made sure folks signed up to help with the logistics of the Social Forum itself. I did ten hours on security.)

In a funny way, the USSF is organized along the lines of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” view of the capitalist economy. Each group pursuing its own immediate interests contributes to building the strongest movement for the greatest number. As a Marxist rather than a neo-liberal, I find that some shortcomings in this conception jumped out at me, for instance, every time I was braced by an outfit which passionately believes that only their “rare and precious” genius of a chairman can save humanity, and therefore that their sole responsibility is to convert the uninitiated to this understanding.

This conception also tends to render meaningless the process of having a hundred or so People’s Movement Assemblies (or, frankly, a handful of people within them) generate statements which are to be debated and voted on by whatever portion of USSF attendees can bear to sit through the grueling closing sessions designed for the purpose. And then what?

An enormous amount of work and resources went into bringing the Detroit USSF into being, like Atlanta before it, and this is work for which the payoff is not immediately obvious, so let me highlight a few of the things we can be sure will result from Detroit.

One is simple crossfertilization, which flourished whenever folks weren’t too singleminded in pumping their own projects. To cite a striking example, hundreds of folks attended workshops on urban gardening or took the USSF-arranged tours of Detroit’s extensive networks of such gardens, and went home with a head full of ideas and a whole new way of thinking about city living.

One of the greatest benefits will probably unfold in the coming months, advances in communication and organization in various sectors, outside of the USSF framework. For instance, face to face contact among organizers and activists in Atlanta in 2007 gave rise to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a major initiative among some of the most exploited workers in the US. Atlanta also introduced many US farm activists in the US to La Via Campesina, the international coalition which is a mainstay of the World Social Forum and “coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe"

Finally and, I would argue, most importantly, the Social Forum gave thousands of us a real taste, if only for a few days, of how much might be possible if we in the US can build a revolutionary socialist organization of tens of thousands based in mass movements, in communities of color, among immigrants, in the working class majority in this country.

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June 9, 2010

BP's Blowout And Capitalism: A Teachable Moment

Talk about your teachable moment.

BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico provides a unique opportunity to build and fight in the popular consciousness for a wide critique of the capitalist system and its workings. I say unique because tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil are still pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day despite all the public relations soft soap and magic bullet solutions--the Top Hat, the Junk Shot and the rest. It's 40 days on and there's no end in sight.

The disaster has people in this country and around the world transfixed. The longer it goes on, the more questions arise, and the more BP's crimes seep not only into the Gulf but into popular culture. So far the media haven't been able to produce a bright, shiny scandal distracting enough to refocus many people. Eventually fatalism will take hold and even concerned people will no longer be able to stand thinking about it, but before it does, let's look at the opening we've been provided with.

1. It exposes the basic nature of capitalism.

The iron law of capital is expand or die. BP became the fourth largest corporation in the world by ruthless mergers with smaller, weaker oil companies like ARCO and Amoco and global power politics like the MI5/CIA operation which in 1953 overthrew of the Mossedagh government in Iran which had nationalized the country's oil. They have twice, in 2000 and 2005, been cited by Multinational Monitor magazine as one of the 10 worst corporations in the world on account of their environmental crimes and unsafe operating practices. (They should be a shoo-in for 2010).

With pressure growing on BP and Big Oil in general to respond to climate change and peak oil, BP executives decided the most cost effective thing to invest in was--a public relations campaign. In 2000, they hired Oglivy & Mather, the Madison Avenue giant, who came up with the "Beyond Petroleum" campaign, including BP's heliocentric green and yellow logo. The $200 million cost of the campaign was worth it. Polls showed this greenwashing had the public seeing BP as the most pro-environment of the energy companies by mid-decade, even after its antiquated Texas City, Texas refinery blew up in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores, and its corroded pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska ruptured in 2006, leaking a quarter of a million barrels onto vulnerable tundra.

And BP continued to cut corners everywhere, ignoring standard procedures, safety warnings and danger signs on the Deep Horizon platform project, to squeeze out every last dime of profit--with results the planet will be living with for decades.

And that expand or die thing? Ironically, the blowout has hammered their stock down so far that other big oil companies, Shell in particular, are strategizing about making takeover bids for BP once things have settled down a bit, and the extent of BP's liability becomes clearer.

2. It exposes the fact that corporations and the rich get to play by different rules from everyone else.

Let's say I inherit a property in an unincorporated area and want to put up a house on it but learn I may be building on top of an old gas station. To save money I don't tell anybody and hire a couple teenagers to rent a jackhammer and see what they can find under the broken pavement there. The kids breach and blow up the old gasoline storage tank, killing themselves, burning down several neighboring homes and saturating the whole neighborhood with toxic fumes. A week later, would I be in charge of the cleanup? Nope, I'd be in the hoosegow, facing serious time.

3. It exposes who it is that the government actually serves in our "democracy."

The Bush administration and the current one are both BP's accomplices, pure and simple. BP, of course, got a "categorical exclusion" last year from having to file an environmental impact statement for the Deepwater Horizon rig. The Interior Department kept issuing them well after the blowout. Not surprising, given that its Minerals Management Service, is a hotbed of industry-funded corruption. And that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took on a former BP executive named Sylvia Vaca as deputy administrator for land and minerals management. A new Rolling Stone article reveals that the government was in the loop with BP on the blowout from Day 1.

Laws to regulate dangerous business practices don't go away (or get waived) by themselves. In 2004, BP's political action committee made donations to candidates totalling 678 thousand bucks. In 2006, 601K. In 2008, that was 619 thou. In 2006, the last year I could find, BP spent $3,650,000 on lobbying. These figures include neither individual executive's campaign contributions nor lobbying by industry associations BP belongs to.

To underline this lesson we have the ugly fact that the government has turned the job of ending the blowout and mitigating the disaster to BP itself!

4. It exposes the nonsense of neo-liberal market worship.

Ask those "The less government, the better" types to explain how the invisible hand of the free market would have prevented this from happening had there been no government regulation at all. Oh, yeah, and how it would force BP, a giant multinational in a oligopolist industry, to fix things faster and better, and to more efficiently make the victims of the disaster and the environment good. Or are we just supposed to exercise our Second Amendment rights on Tony Hayward to caution other Big Oil execs that they'd best clean up their acts?

5. It exposes the right wing "populism" of the teabagging and libertarian types.

They are saddled with their "Drill, Baby, Drill" slogans which were a centerpiece of the Tea Parties.

And they don't learn. Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul and Republican candidate for Senate in Tennessee, actually said last week that Obama (Obama!) "sounds really un-American in his criticism of business," when he took a couple belated shots at BP. Now Bobby Jindal, Republican Governor of Louisiana, is protesting the belated federal moratorium, a six month halt, on new deep water drilling while safety issues are examined.

6. It exposes other weak points for capitalism where they intersect with BP--and more crop up daily.

The Nation in its current issue reports on BP's ties to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: BP holds more than $2 billion in annual US defense contracts and continues to be the premiere provider of fuel to the world's largest consumer of oil and gas: the Pentagon. (This is of course in addition to the fact that the war in Iraq in particular had everything to do with insuring that there is a US hand on the petroleum spigot there.)

Today the news broke that a local sheriff in Louisiana has called in "La Migra," a/k/a Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, because he suspects that undocumented workers may among those taking on the dirty, unsafe and thankless job of cleaning up after BP and protecting the state's coastline.

7. It exposes the mainstream media as lapdogs of capital.

For weeks they acted like stenographers for BP and US officials downplaying the disaster, and hyped each successive attempt at a "solution" even after it had failed (possibly because BP flacks didn't keep them informed). It was only the combination of the blogosphere and intrepid pilots and boat operators and scientists and oil industry veterans who forced the real facts and prospects into the public eye and finally got the media raising some timid questions (although the appalling kerfluffle about whether Obama was "acting angry enough" sucked up a lot of their attention).

They are hardly even making any noise about the fact that BP turned access to its underwater video of the blowout on and off for weeks. Or that BP made boat owners they contracted with sign charter contracts forbidding them to talk to the media or disclose "Data" they might come across. Or that BP has local law enforcement keeping journalists away from beaches and cleanup areas. Or that anyone wishing to fly over a huge chunk of the Gulf of Mexico has been told by the United States Coast Guard that they have to get permission from BP's command center. Or that BP purchased the top slot at Google.com so searches for "oil spill" and similar queries would be directed to their site.
Tellingly, one thing BP has tried hardest to suppress is the shocking pictures of birds and other wildlife coated in deadly oil. These pictures clearly indicate to people how deadly the spill is (and will continue to be). They trigger intense feelings of compassion and horror, and they help people reflect on how even something as resilient as an ecosystem can be trashed by greed.

8. It exposes the racism, jingoism and great power chauvinism of Big Oil and the media.

News story after news story frets about the "oil spill" getting into Gulf of Mexico currents and winding up in the Florida Keys or even being carried North along the East Coast. That refers, it goes without saying to the East Coast of the United States. You'd never guess that there are other countries bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, or that anything rounding Florida is going to wash up on Cuba and the Bahamas first.

Commendably, one newspaper, the Guardian (from England, not the US) has carried a harrowing report telling how spills in Nigeria, offshore and on land, are at a level that still dwarfs the Deepwater Horizon blowout so far, and describing the horrific effects on the population and the environment there. It should be spread widely. Environmental groups have done similar exposures about Latin America.

9. It exposes the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist as contrary to the interests of the world's people.

Petrocapitalism some have dubbed it, because imperialism has been increasingly based on petroleum as a source of energy for its whole existence. Petroleum is the largest non-living input into commodity production, the basis for enhancing the productivity of human labor to levels unimagined a century ago. It is central to a global society organized around the incessant production and consumption of commodities--goods and services created for sale in the market, whether needed or not.

As such, dependence on petroleum is a major feature of the world we live in. And the human race is using it up. Fast. There is more oil to be extracted, to be sure, but under conditions worse those feeding BP's underwater gusher, with consequent hazards to the environment and humanity.

The logic is inescapable. A new world is not only possible but necessary, and it will have to be a world where society is organized to meet people's needs and in which people collectively and actively produce what they need and do it with an awareness of what their production and consumption is doing to the planet. Expand or die and the drive for profit have no place in this new world. Let's call it socialism for starters.

A final and obvious point. I have written, nine times, "It exposes..." Well, the BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout ain't exactly gonna do that all by itself. It needs our help.

I'm not going to prescribe here. I hope that others reading this will chip in ideas on how we should be helping friends, family, co-workers, strangers draw some of these conclusions. Because even if this is a teachable moment, we all know that lecturing at folks, especially ones who didn't sign up for it, is bad pedagogy. How should we be teaching?

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June 5, 2010

California Loses A Great Teacher

The economic cyclone that started over two years ago continues its devastating path across the country, with public services increasingly in the path or already sucked up into the funnel itself. I just got a letter written by an old compa of mine, revolutionary poet Joe Navarro, explaining why he feels he has to take an early retirement offer from his teaching job in the Hollister, California, public schools.

I hope those who have never met Joe will get a sense from his letter just how serious a loss this is for the students of Hollister. He is a concerned and gifted educator whose ability to teach has been all but destroyed by the crisis-fueled policies being imposed on the system.

Before Joe's letter, here is a little context. And let it serve as a damn wake up call to those in states where the budget crisis is still festering and hasn't erupted into the open running sore that it is in California--the eighth largest economy in the world, state officials used to like to brag.

A three minute Google search turned up an AP article from yesterday on schools in San Jose, whence this ugly excerpt:

The library at Silver Creek High is open for only an hour a day. The career center is closed. There is no more summer school. And student athletes must pay $200 each.

State budget cuts will make things even worse next year. The school will probably have five fewer classroom days and lose three of its four guidance counselors and three of its four custodians, as well as its health aide, mental health coordinator and student activities director. The future of student government, clubs, pep rallies, homecoming and prom is in doubt.

Though there was no mention of it in the alarming article, there are doubtless teachers, good experienced educators, right at Silver Creek High making the same agonized decision that Joe Navarro has.

Dear Friends,

I have come to an important decision. I have accepted an offer to take early retirement from my school district. My conscience is at a crossroad. I can no longer deliver the methods of instruction as prescribed by my school district, the state of California and federal mandates.

Teaching has been my passion and my calling. I started late, at 40 years of age and my starting point was a student and parent advocate.

When I began teaching there were still ideals that included teaching to the whole child, bilingual/bicultural education, content mastery, equality, quality education, developing children into problem solvers and critical thinkers. Since then, the language has been hijacked by politically conservative think tanks and politicians. Now, the quest for quality teaching has been replaced by the quest for best test scores. Scripted lesson plans, rote memorization, English-only education, drill and skill instruction and overzealous test preparation now dominate teaching.

The carefully crafted wording for education reform has tapped into the righteous sentiments of people of color who want education to be equal for all nationalities. Phrases like "tougher," "more rigorous," "higher," "run schools using the business model," etc. have fooled people into believing that the only problem with education has been that we have gotten too soft on kids and cannot compete internationally.

One major problem with these arguments are that rote memorization and drill and skill instruction do not amount to higher quality learning. Another problem is that if you look at high performing schools in affluent communities they teach critical thinking skills and problem solving, while people of color and poor people receive higher doses of rote memorization and drill and skill instruction.

The U.S. produces huge numbers of scientists, engineers and intellectuals in comparison to the rest of the world and cannot be compared to countries that do not have the same multinational characteristics as the U.S. The reason that work for scientists, intellectuals and engineers are being exported to other nations is not because there are not enough of them in the U.S., but that scientists, intellectuals and engineers in the third world work cheaply.

Current standards in the US are high. The problem is that there is a double standard of how education is delivered to schools, from teacher preparation, to policy makers, to administrators and teachers. No one wants to deal with issues like underfunding poor people and people of color; racist policies like zero tolerance; eliminating bilingual/bicultuaral education; or whitening the curriculum. Paolo Freire argued for critical pedagogy where you create an education system that not only teaches children how to read, write and do math, but also to teach them to be analytical, critical thinkers and grow up to improve society.

I have argued this point, written letters to the editor, joined in the letters to Obama, written to my congresspersons, shared my research, argued with my administrators and defied policies by teaching critical thinking skills, art and culture. My hands are tied in the classroom.

I don't know what is next. It's a bitter-sweet reality for me. I am sad and feel relieved at the same time. I am also uneasy now that I don't have a job. What's next? I don't know.

Best Wishes,


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