Category Archives: Radical Left

Reflections on the progressive path forward

Reflections on the progressive path forward. 

The 2018 mid-term election was an astounding repudiation of Donald Trump, and an affirmation of a progressive alternative for the United States. A Democratic Party that has clearly moved to the Left on issues across the board – no doubt stimulated by the efforts of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in particular – achieved historic gains that were only limited by the extreme gerrymandering that the Republicans have instituted following their successes in 2010. And these clearly remain serious structural impediments to further progressive politics, to a consideration of which I will turn shortly. 

But we can be particularly excited by the racial, cultural, and gender diversity of the “class of 18.” And this achievement itself was built upon the most significant fact of all, namely the unprecedented politicization and mobilization of vast sectors of the electorate, across the country, a mobilization without precedent in modern American history. So many from all walks of life have come to realize that basic aspects of our culture and institutions – including much that we had always simply taken for granted as the gift of “American exceptionalism” – because “God had shed His grace” on us – were not guaranteed, and were directly threatened by the Trump Administration and its transformation of the Republican Party into a willing vehicle of a burgeoning American neo-Fascism. 

In the truly national scope and sustained action of this popular mobilization lies the basis of the exciting electoral success. And in the sustaining and expanding of this unprecedented national mobilization lies the hope and possibility of effectively advancing a progressive agenda that can reclaim American politics through the national elections of 2020, the consequent state-by-state redistricting, and thus for years thereafter.   

Therein resides our legitimate excitement, our organizational challenge, and our potential strategic trap. And it is to that potential “trap” that I want to address the better part of these remarks. For we are engaged in a long-term struggle with the forces of reaction, which, unfortunately, are all too strong across America – as attested to by Trump’s continued support at around 40%. We must build and expand the national constituency for progressive politics. And we must not alienate significant dimensions of that national mobilization by overplaying our hand. We must avoid getting carried away by some of the most remarkable progressive successes, mostly in the liberal bastions of many locations – but not all – in the Northeast, mid-West and West Coast, for example, thus playing into the hands of reaction. 

Let me explicate this challenge by drawing on a few excellent points developed by Michael Tomasky in the current issue of the New York Review of Books to which we need to pay careful attention. He first correctly draws the following two key takeaways from the recent election: 1) the necessity for the Democrats to increasingly mobilize their base to counter the Trumpian mobilization; and 2) the need to address the increasingly dramatic split between, on the one hand, the expanding urban and suburban base of the Democratic electorate and, on the other hand, its drastically shrinking support in small town and rural Americas, the base of the Trumpian Republican Party. 

Here, Tomasky observes that “there is no clearer sign of the changing shape of the Democratic coalition than the fact that going into the 2018 midterm elections, six of the 20 richest congressional districts were represented by Republicans but that when the new Congress is sworn in, all 20 will be represented by Democrats…. But by 2020, the Democrats will have to find ways to improve their performance in exurban and rural areas. This is not only for the sake of defeating Trump, but also to have any chance of recapturing the Senate.” 

Here, “a look at the Beto O’Rourke’s defeat in Texas, compared with Sherrod Brown’s victory in increasingly Republican Ohio, … is instructive.” While O’Rourke only lost by “around 220,000 votes out of 8.33 million cast, (he) carried just thirty-two of the state’s 254 counties, … (he) got walloped (in most of the rest). For example, … in six of the seven counties that surround (the city of Fort Worth), Cruz won 54, 68, 76, 80, 81, and 82 percent. And he won 70 or 80 percent of the vote in dozens of the smaller rural counties.” In contrast, Brown was victorious by being able to keep his deficit in similar rural and small town Ohio to around 60%.

Tomasky then observes that “the electoral consequences should be clear. Consider the Senate map of 2020. Thirty-four senators will face reelection (except for those who choose to retire). Of those, twenty-three will be Republicans, and just eleven Democrats. That sounds favorable to Democrats, but if you look closer, about fourteen of the Republicans represent deep-red states where they should cruise to reelection. The other seven will not be easy to flip. The fattest target is probably Maine incumbent Susan Collins. Maine just elected a Democratic governor, who is also the state’s first female governor. But beating an incumbent senator is always hard (though some believe Collins may retire). The other states where Democrats may have a shot include Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas. Donald Trump carried five of those six. All have major cities, but all are states where it’s hard to win by carrying only the most populous counties and doing poorly in the rural ones.”

“As for the presidency,” Tomasky continues, “there are a number of states—the Great Lakes states, North Carolina, Florida, and even Arizona and Georgia—where the pro-Trump vote in the rural counties will be so amped up that the Democrat, while winning the big counties, will have a tough time overcoming it.“

While not exploring the causes of this electoral divide, which bears on the political and economic failures of both parties over the last 50 years, to which I will turn shortly, Tomasky offers the following “stunning statistics. The United States has experienced three recessions since 1990(:) … after the early 1990s recession, 71 percent of the new business growth occurred in counties with fewer than 500,000 people (and within that, 32 percent in counties with fewer than 100,000 people). After the 2002–2003 recession, that 71 percent shrank to 51 percent. And after the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the number was 19 percent—and in counties under 100,000 growth was literally zero.That is a crisis. It’s at the root of the opioid epidemic, and it’s why so many young people leave these towns.” And those most recent numbers happened under the neo-Liberal Obama Administration. This highlights one of the central reasons these regions are so desperate for change, and so angry at all political establishments, but especially those they see as aligned with urban cosmopolitan interests and values, which they primarily identify with the Democrats.

There is so much more than can and should be said about the causes and scope of this problem which I cannot address here, except to note that this economic situation and political divide is a direct result of the process of Neo-Liberal Globalization that has dominated the Western World since at least the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan. And it has had similar results across the “advanced West,” not to speak of its more global consequences. For example, it is the essential background for the almost unprecedented nation-wide mobilization of the French people against the Neo-Liberal policies of the Macron Administration, that has effectively brought that government to its knees.

But I only want to underline here the fact that a progressive Democratic program, if it is to be successful, must begin to address this economic and cultural divide. And to do that, it must break from the Neo-LIberal orthodoxy of its Clinton-Obama establishment, that has left behind so much of America. Here, Tomasky highlights “the Democrats’ two big electoral tasks as they head into 2020: to invest in maximizing turnout among their base voters in cities and diverse suburbs, and to take steps to ensure that they can become more competitive in the exurbs and the countryside. These goals may seem as though they contradict each other, but they need not; both constituencies would be open to an agenda emphasizing public investments that help middle- and working-class people. There will be some tension on cultural issues, and Democrats shouldn’t go overboard in pandering for rural votes. After all, they’re not trying win those areas; just to perform about 10 or 15 points better—at Sherrod Brown’s levels rather than Beto O’Rourke’s.”

But here’s where the “trap” of potential Left-wing overreach emerges. The danger that the Left will get carried away with its political enthusiasm and ideological rhetoric. I think of talk I have heard that speaks of an ascendant Left that should direct the Democrat’s national program. Or a recent program of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” for example, on which Lawrence O’Donnell assembled a panel of “experts” to propound that Trump’s most recent series of tweets makes it incumbent on the New Democratic House of Representatives that they immediately begin impeachment proceedings. However desirable both of these goals may well be, they overreach the currently politically possible, and threaten to energize a popular backlash.

Just to note two salient points from the 2018 election in support of this caution. First, a significant majority of the Democrats’ 40 seat shift in the House of Representatives was accomplished with quite narrow electoral margins. Several were not even decided for several weeks. Second, as Michael Tomasky points out – a fact too many Left-wing advocates have ignored – “left-wing candidates did not do well overall in this election. The three major left-wing groups that endorsed candidates this year flipped no House seats from red to blue, while the more centrist New Dem PAC flipped twenty-eight seats.” To which he adds, challengingly, “what the Democrats will need in 2020, far more than a candidate of the left, or for that matter of the avowed center, is one who can withstand what will undoubtedly be the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign in the country’s modern history and provide the clearest moral contrast to the incumbent.”

He then concludes, quite on the mark as far as I am concerned, “the party now has the power to hold Trump and his administration accountable. They shouldn’t overreach and carry on about impeachment. Removing Trump from office would require the assent of about twenty Republican senators and is therefore basically impossible. They should just expose the corruption through holding aggressive oversight hearings and trust the American people to reach the right conclusion. Trump’s partisans are fierce, but the election showed that they are, however narrowly, outnumbered.”

So where is the danger of overreach? Clearly any attempt to immediately move for impeachment, for which much of the Country is clearly not ready, and on which platform few successful Democrats ran, would not be well received. Before any such effort might become practicable, there will need to be an ongoing series of quite legitimate public investigations by the New Democratic House, plus continual revelations by the Justice Department. That might “soften up” the terrain for an impeachment inquiry. But that’s at best down the road. 

Even more challenging and potentially destructive in the short run, is the emerging progressive strategy to advance a Green New Deal. Clearly, such a program can embody an exciting vision of a potentially transformative progressive program to address both the challenge of global warming and offer an effective alternative to that Neo-LIberal abandonment of large sections of American society. It is essential, of course, that we have such a program – and develop a consequent movement – to promote the comprehensive structural changes in the US economy that addresses both the profound dangers to civilization posed by Global Warming, and the vast destabilizing income inequalities and regional disparities that have been caused by Neo-Liberal Globalization. Let me be quite clear about that.

At the same time, however, the proposed Green New Deal, embodies a practical trap of political overreach for the Democratic Party, driven by an excited progressive movement that is well ahead of where much of the Country is at present. The danger is that the excitement of electoral successes and the real need of systemic change, will drive ideologically committed progressives to mistake a necessary directional goal for a non-révisable and achievable short-term political program. That is to make a two-fold basic strategic error, one methodological, and one political.

Methodologically, it is to mistake a projected and necessary end-in-view with the short term programs that can begin to move us in the desired direction. An end-in-view should be seen, not as a final goal that we are to insist be imposed upon our politics here and now. Rather, it should be seen as a “means to present action.” It is a necessary marker of a direction for our politics to take. It sets forth a needed theoretical frame and political direction to guide our short-term policies and programs. As we proceed with their practical implementation, reality itself is changed, and that will inevitably require us to continually revise and update our guiding vision and its on-going practical enactment.

Politically, the way that that general methodological point bears upon the present situation, is that presentation of, and the consequent public campaign on behalf of, a Green New Deal will not only direct present programs, but can begin to raise public consciousness and to move the public debate. Thus it can increasingly gain the support of increasingly wider sections of the public, thus making its radical programs more palatable to the general public. This is a campaign of several years duration, similar to that that was begun about a decade ago on behalf of Medicare For All, which campaign has now achieved far more general popular acceptance. 

These remarks may not sit well with some of my progressive allies, who I feel may have fallen in love with their own rhetoric and have confused their quite legitimate hopes for a decent America with the practical limitations placed on current poltical possibilities by the vast, complex, and diverse makeup of the American electorate, and the structural impediments to implementing systemic progressive economic, racial, and social transformation. It is, of course, quite essential to hold to that vision, and to try to effectively advance it as much as possible. But we have learnt in these last few years, if we needed that education, that any short term gains can easily be completely undone if we cannot secure a lasting base, both ideological and structural, for progressive politics through 2020 and beyond. And we must acknowledge the current limitations of national support for the complete progressive agenda to which even the remarkable nation-wide popular mobilization and electoral success are convincing testimony. 

“In our increasingly polarized environment, success is not had by moving to the vanishing center and trying to appease the “moderates,” but by energizing and mobilizing … our base to turn out to vote. And that requires attractive candidates that can present programs that speak to the concerns of their constituents. But … this is a large and diverse nation, and that what will speak to their constituents’ issues and concerns, and in a language that communicates, will be significantly different in different parts of the country.” Back Bay Boston is not Southern California. Queens and The Bronx are not Colorado, Arizona, or even Western Pennsylvania.

We have a remarkable opportunity to turn back Trumpian incipient neo-Fascism, and to begin building a progressive future. This is actually a life and death struggle to preserve even a modified democratic future for this country. It is a vital struggle. We must be careful not to overplay our hand and screw it up.

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On The Russian Investigation

I am concerned and even saddened to see the way many long-term leftists, often with quite reputable histories, joining the chorus of those treating claims of Russian interference in our recent election as “fake news,” or only as a conspiracy of foreign policy Hawks to reignite the Cold War, or but an attempt by the Democratic Establishment to explain its electoral defeat and justify its continuing policies and hold on power. For example, the left-wing Real News Network speaks of Trump’s “One Good Policy” in criticizing ongoing efforts to investigate both the Trump campaign and now the Trump Administration. Such analyses often go so far as to justify their position by documenting US interference in the elections of other countries.

But regardless of past — and probably continuing — US interference in other countries (which should be addressed on its own terms) — the public is right to insist upon a full investigation and action to impede as much as possible any future Russian interference for many reasons, not the least of which is the preservation of what’s left of US democracy.

But more to the immediate point, such investigation is crucial to the mobilization of sufficient Republican opposition to the Trump Administration, which alone in the short run can incapacitate it from its destructive political path (and I’m quite confident that there’s a vast Mafiaesque corrupt underbelly that Trump will do almost anything to protect).

Unfortunately, there is no way in the US constitutional system to remove an Administration, as there is in parliamentary systems, so the best that we can do is incapacitate them, push Trump to further outrageous actions, and mobilize an opposition that hopefully!!!! can be electorally successful in 2017, 18, & 2020 — in spite of the immense power of the yet to be fully unleashed financial power, an empowered right-wing media and the growing right-wing influence on the courts. And that will of necessity require us to a limited extent to make common cause with people whose politics on a wide-range of other issues may be anathema to ours. We must appreciate the very palpable fact that our democratic institutions hang by a thread, and all who care about those institutions should NOT contribute to undermining the most effective and potentially successful opposition to the Trump Administration that a mobilized populace can bring about.

Bernie’s campaign: where do we go from here?

Bernie’s campaign aftermath

With Donald Trump having effectively secured the Republican Party’s designation as its Presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton almost certainly having done likewise for the Democratic Party, the question before Progressives is clearly, where do we go from here. For those who share almost all of the positions so effectively promoted by Bernie Sanders, as I do, the challenge before us is how best to promote them during the forthcoming Presidential campaign and beyond.

It has been clear from the outset, that the political revolution that Sanders has called for could not have been carried out solely by his election, however much that might have been desired — and however much it might have further stimulated such an undertaking. Any such radical change would certainly require the effective mobilization of masses of people. Bernie certainly knows that, and has said it quite explicitly. It might even be the case, that his election — given that he would have become the obvious direct target of the numerous powerful forces that would inevitably have amassed to oppose him — would have impeded the efforts to build the mass movement for systemic social change for which he called, and which we desperately need. Certainly, major efforts would have been required to defend his administration from the full-scaled attack of which they certainly would have been the object. And, quite probably, we would have been far from having built the effective national mass movement that such a counter effort would require. But that is speculation.

The reality is that Bernie has changed the political dialogue, and his candidacy has mobilized a national progressive constituency as never before. The challenge for progressives is now to build that mobilized constituency into a well-organized and coherent progressive force that can effectively contest for power over the long haul — at the local, state, and national level. It must be a movement that works in and through the Democratic Party, as well as outside and independent of the Party. There can be no adequate progressive movement that does not begin to obtain leverage within the official structures of institutional power. Given the American electoral system, go-it-alone third parties simply divide and incapacitate the progressive movement. This is a lesson that should now be obvious to all — as the past Naderite efforts and the unfortunate strategy of the Green Party have made abundantly clear. On the other hand, the WFP has shown how to use a third party to effectively leverage its influence, working independently in states that allow fusion voting, and as a coherent force within the Democratic Party where that is required.

The challenge for us now is to build that movement, supporting Clinton’s campaign to defeat Trump and the Republican crazies (and where are Republicans that are not crazies these days?), while holding her feet to the fire, as she certainly cannot be trusted not to “triangulate”, corporate liberal that she certainly is. But the occasion will be perfect to build that progressive movement, supporting the many progressive down-ballot candidates that can strengthen this growing movement, while building the public consciousness and organizational power to drive a new Clinton Administration and the public dialogue continually to the left. The details of such a movement building operation has been beautifully set forth by Les Leopold, and I conclude this post by sharing his article with you.

“If Bernie captures the nomination, then what does his “political revolution” look like? Arguably, whether he wins or loses the nomination, our task will be roughly the same.

We will need to build a massive national organization with staying power to push for a broad-based agenda for justice — along the lines of the platform Sanders is spreading so successfully. We can’t let this golden political moment slip away….again.

Occupy Wall Street gave us a similar moment. In six short months it grew to 900 encampments around the world. It changed the national discourse. Before OWS, President Obama was proudly pursuing a bi-partisan austerity bill — a “grand bargain” that would have included cuts in Social Security. After Occupy Wall Street put runaway inequality on the map, the national debate radically shifted… and it’s still shifting in the direction of taking on the “billionaire class” as Bernie puts it.

But Occupy Wall Street essentially disappeared within six months. What can we learn from its demise?

The standard line is that repression from city governments took them down. But while police actions did take place, OWS faded primarily because it didn’t believe in organization. Rather it called for “horizontal” organizing and mass consensus decision-making that supposedly would avoid the pitfalls of oppressive hierarchical organization. .

This was akin to believing in spontaneous political combustion — much like the Arab Spring. While such spontaneous uprisings can change discourse in profound ways and even topple governments in some countries, they can’t survive without organization. (It was the well organized Muslim Brotherhood that harvested the fruits of Egypt’s mass uprising, and now the Egyptian military has taken over with a vengeance .)

The problem however goes far beyond Occupy Wall Street. The rest of us were asleep at the switch. OWS showed us that the American people detested runaway inequality and Wall Street’s financial strip-mining of the economy. As the Tea Party demonstrated on the right, the moment was ripe to build a national progressive movement. But we didn’t do it. Why?

The answer in large part lies in how our generation of progressive organizations are structured. We are entangled in thousands of issue-based silos, each struggling to raise money, survive and do good work. Although the talent level of staff is enormously high, when the 2007-08 crash occurred, our silos were totally unprepared. We did not reach out to each other to build a massive national response, even as the national piggy bank was donated to Wall Street bailouts.

That kind of action just wasn’t on the to-do list of our siloed organizations. That’s not what most of our funders were funding. We refused to realize that progress on our siloed issues was doomed unless we banned together to take on Wall Street. Many of us today still don’t get it.

Bernie does.

He offers us another critical moment to build a lasting movement for economic and social justice. His campaign has hit the same raw nerve as Occupy Wall Street —- except on steroids.

There is great national sentiment to break up the big banks, to tax Wall Street to pay for free higher education, to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, to stop the billionaire tax evaders. Sanders has put a social democratic agenda on the political map in full relief.

But as Sanders knows full well, none of it is attainable unless we apply massive, sustained political pressure on every aspect of government. And this is the case whether he wins or loses. It’s on us, not him, to build that movement and those structures.

Here are some of the basic features that we need to consider:

  1. A coherent short agenda and common analysis that binds us together:

Sanders is field testing a common agenda each and every day. We know it must include a vast redistribution of income and wealth from the “billionaire class” to the rest of society. It also must confront the fact that we’re the largest police state in the world, bar none.

We need to get all of it down to no more than a 10-point plan that clearly reflects the anger we feel towards the super-rich, the rigged political system, and systemic racial and ethnic injustices. The trick will be to blend a mix of class and discrimination issues without ripping ourselves apart.

We need a common analysis of how financial strip-mining and runaway inequality are harming the 99 percent.

  1. A national educational infrastructure to spread the agenda and analysis:

The populists of the 1880s during their anti-Wall Street revolt fielded 6,000 grass roots educations to spread the word about the need for cooperatives, public banks, progressive income taxes and popular control over railroads and communications systems.

Given the growth of our population, we will need to develop more than 30,000 educators to spread our message and agenda. Yes, social media can facilitate the process but nothing beats live discussion of these vital issues.

The Communications Workers of America and Citizen Action of New York already have launched such mass economic and social justice training. It could become a model for other unions and community groups to use.

  1. A coherent national organization with state and local chapters:

All of us need to belong to something with a common identity —that concretely expresses our movement. Our opponents are strong. A demonstration or two will not remove their iron grip on the economy and the political process. We need to prepare for a ten to twenty year struggle in order to break down their plutocracy. Therefore we need solid organizational structures that can sustain themselves.

We should be able to travel anywhere in the country and join in a local meeting of our new organization and engage in common debate, discussion and political activity.

Building such a structure takes people and money. The Sanders campaign will have a surplus of both. Either in victory or defeat, it will amass millions of small donors and tens of thousands of volunteers and staff who are likely to be willing to build, join and contribute to such a formation.

  1. A new movement identity:

This is perhaps the highest hurdle for us to clear. We need to see ourselves as movement builders. We must make our silos more porous. Our identities as enviros, racial justice fighters, labor activists and so on also must include a common movement building identity. Our traditional approach to coalition and alliance building is unlikely to succeed unless we place a much higher value on building a new common movement identity.

None of this will come easy. It cuts hard against the grain of how progressives are organized. Our separate identities give us nourishment and a sense of empowerment. It’s also not something our “funders” are likely to embrace because they too have their silos. It will disrupt our to-do lists and put us into strange new organizing space. And there are likely to be rivalries among organizations and individuals who may vie for leadership.

This is tough stuff. Is it possible to imagine that climate justice, Black Lives Matter, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, prison reform, and union organizing could all come together in a common movement? Not easily. But runaway inequality will stifle all of these movements unless we do band together. The elite plutocracy gives us no choice but to try.

Of course, this kind of mass organizing becomes somewhat easier if Sanders is elected. However, win or lose, it is the challenge of our lifetimes — it is the promise of the Sanders political revolution.

Les Leopold is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015) is a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.”

Hillary’s Defense of Wall Street Contributions is Backwards.

Why Hillary’s Defense of Wall Street Contributions is Backwards.

When Bernie Sanders challenges Hillary Clinton about her astronomical speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financial interests, she responds by challenging him to name one specific vote that she changed because of receiving money from Wall Street. To which he responds by reiterating, correctly, of course — but slightly besides the point — that corporations and wealthy people don’t give such contributions out of personal generosity, but because they expect to get something for it. Which is obvious.

But the entire issue is framed backwards by Hillary, for obvious reasons. It’s not that Hillary Clinton changed votes because she received large corporate contributions from Wall Street, it’s that she received those contributions because Wall Street already knows they can count on her votes. They know that she is a corporate Liberal who fundamentally shares their economic and political world view. Thus they know they can count on her continuing support, and wish to reward and encourage her actions, and provide her with the wherewithal to carry on. That is why she was so enthusiastic in her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership while serving as Secretary of State, why she did not take a position against Fast Track early on in the campaign, when she did not feel she had to worry about Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge, and why her late found opposition to TPP has been mild, with no commitment to stop it if she gets elected — as Bernie Sanders has promised to do.

But Bernie has seemed to be unwilling to make this obvious point about her being a corporate Liberal — forcing her to make that promise of rejecting TPP if elected — because this would force him to criticize Obama as the corporate Liberal that he is. And Bernie obviously feels that he needs to downplay his opposition to Obama’s economics, perhaps because of his fear that that would alienate large sections of the Black vote, and possibly, of the Democratic base. And thus when Hillary responds to his challenge on her taking large Wall Street donations with noting that Obama did likewise, Bernie is left on the defensive, and his responses are weak.

Bernie would be on more solid ground, and true to his beliefs and proposals, if he would recognize that Obama is a corporate Liberal. That’s why Obama chose the economic advisors he did, why no corporate executives went to jail for ripping off the economy, why the Tea Party and the Left is justly outraged by the bailout of Wall Street and the failure to protect homeowners from foreclosures, why neither Clinton nor Obama want to talk about breaking up the big banks, why they have no major policies that would really address the increasing growth of income inequality, and why Obama is doing everything in his power to push through the corporate-designed TPP, against the opposition of the majority of the Democratic Party — which is, in this case, supported by the Tea Party!!

Bernie Sanders is correct in his claim that only a “political revolution” can significantly change the politics of this country, putting Main Street in power instead of Wall Street — however dubious such a revolution may be. And that Hillary Clinton — however much vastly to be preferred to any of the (corporately-controlled) Republican alternatives — is a corporate Liberal who would truly constitute continuity with Obama’s economic and political Wall Street-friendly agenda. We could do far worse. We may do far worse. But we need to do far better if we are to counter the growth of American oligarchic power, revitalize and preserve American democratic traditions, and effectively address the long-term structural threats to representative government.

Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest For Meaning

Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest For Meaning is a pleasant personal exploration of the significance of Camus’s work. It is built around five central Camusian themes: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity, and Revolt. Zaretsky’s presentation is pleasant, and for the most part adequate, if not particularly remarkable. He does offer a few helpful additions to the usual presentations, most particularly with the focus he puts on the importance for Camus of the work of Simone Weil. As he importantly observes, “Camus considered the analysis of human needs and duties in L’Enracinement to be a revelation.” To which he adds that “he found Weil’s treatment of ancient Greece no less revelatory,” namely, her “conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life” in the West, but do not.

But it is precisely here, however, that Zaretsky’s then goes importantly astray, and it is to correct that serious misrepresentation that I felt compelled to write this review. First, Zaretsky makes the important error of translating “la mesure” as “moderation”, which reduces Camus engaged politics of struggle to an anemic plea for moderation. And then he compounds that error by claiming that Camus insists we must “never allow our rebellion to turn into revolution,” (P. 180) thus treating rebellion and revolution as essential antagonists.

Both conservatives and “liberals” — the latter particularly in the United States — on the one hand, and Marxists and radicals in general, on the other hand, have sought to present Camus as counter-posing revolt and revolution precisely in the manner of Zaretsky. The former to praise him for his opposition to radical revolution, and the latter to rake him over the proverbial coals as a bourgeoise sellout to capitalist oppression.

But Camus emphatically rejected precisely that interpretation of his work, and went to great pains to insist that there was a critical and crucial connection between rebellion and revolution, which we fail to recognize at our peril. No where is that effort clearer than in his (initially unpublished) response to the controversy over The Rebel. (For the English translation of that essay, see my Sartre and Camus: An Historic Confrontation.) Rather, it is only “absolutist”, ideologically inspired Revolution that Camus targets with his criticism, while insisting that fruitful rebellion ought rightfully to lead to revolutionary transformations so long as such revolutions remain true to the spirit of outrage and the demand to respect human dignity that initiated the rebellion. Hence, there is a necessary unity in tension between the spirit of rebellion and the institutionalization of revolution that needs always to be maintained. And Zaretsky completely misses that connection, and thus eviscerates the force of Camus’ analysis. (For an extensive discussion on these issues, see my “Camus: A Critical Examination.)

Review of Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living — Belknap Press of Harvard University: Cambridge, MA 2013

 

Confronting Left-wing ideologues

An interchange on electoral strategy for progressives. The problem of self-defeating left-wing delusions about politics.

Richard Curtis, Seattle offered the following comment, beginning a typical radical left-wing strategy for American Politics, beginning the following interchange on Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

As you may have heard Bernie Sanders is prepared to announce his candidacy for president tomorrow.  He is evidently going to run as a Democrat and obviously if he were to get the nomination would radically change American politics.  That seems unlikely but what is possible is his running as an Independent on a groundswell of support gathered during the primary.  If he gets sufficient support he will be motivated to try the independent route, and if polls in Europe are any guide, voters are getting fed up with established parties.  This could be a historic moment.

Sanders is not perfect but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  He is much better on almost every issue than any other candidate or possible candidate with any possibility of going anywhere.

This may be a historic moment where electoral politics shifts.  Sanders needs as much support as can be given.  America needs this.

My reply:

I am excited about Bernie’s running in the Democratic Primary. But I am glad that he will never pull a Ralph Nader, and run as an independent. Nader’s destructive action in 2000 has already cost us greatly, not the least of which has been the destructive decisions of the current Supreme Court. If you want to build a third party — and the WFP is already effectively doing that, and other might well try — you have to build real power at the local and state levels. Let us not be self-destructive leftist — enough damage has already been caused by such behavior.

Richard responds:

David, that makes absolutely no sense.

We are in the position we are in now because so many people were too cowardly to vote for Nader when they should have.  It is lesser evil thinking in elections that has allowed the Democratic Leadership Council to take over the Democratic Party and to move it farther and farther to the right.  To suggest that Nader was wrong or that Sanders ought not run as an independent when the times comes is simply laughable.  That thinking shows complete Ignorant of current political reality and the history that produced it.  Ever since I was old enough to vote alleged progressives have said we have to support Democrats and all that has produced is a Democratic Party that is now to the right of the Republican Party of 30 years ago.

If the last presidency has not taught us the folly of lesser evil politics I don’t know what would.  Establishment Democrats support TPP and drones — drones killing US citizens without trial we should note.  And you want us to vote for them?  Are you insane?

The only hope for the world is for Sanders to become an independent on a wave of progressive Democratic support and win as a result of Americans acting like actually informed people (like Greeks) and vote out the establishment.

Richard C

My next reply:

Saying that the only problem is that enough people didn’t vote for Nader is about as practical as saying the only problem in the world is that enough people don’t follow Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Wishing a reality doesn’t make it so. The reason the Dems are further to the Right than 30 years ago is because the Right HAS ORGANIZED and built an effective base and public campaign that changed the dynamics of our society. You want a short cut, instead of doing the hard on the ground organizing that can really make a difference — and that the Working Families Party is now doing in at least 6 states. We would not have had a DiBlasio administration in NYC and a very progressive Citiy Council — or two very progressive statewide officers (NOT including the Governor) — if it wasn’t for that grassroots, detailed effort. Contributing to the victory of a far Right Republican in the name of ideological purity would be worse than self-defeating. Stop waving an intellectual wand, and build an effective progressive alternative from the bottom up. That’s what Bernie wants to do — there is NO WAY he will run as an independent — and so does Elizabeth Warren. These are our best hopes at present — long with a few others at the national level, and many more locally and in the media.

Richard Curtis’s 2nd response:

To suggest that Nader was wrong or that Sanders ought not run as an independent when the times comes is simply laughable.  That thinking shows complete Ignorant of current political reality and the history that produced it.  Ever since I was old enough to vote alleged progressives have said we have to support Democrats and all that has produced is a Democratic Party that is now to the right of the Republican Party of 30 years ago.

And then,

Paul Zarembka added:

I agree with you, Richard.  Further, Gore did not lose.  Even if he did, it would be GORE’s fault.  I actually remember that Gore told Nader that it was his, Gore’s fault, not Nader’s.  Gore shows more respect for Nader than the person to whom you are responding.

More fundamentally, lesser of evil’s politics, gets us deeper into evil politics.

To which I replied:

More pathological wish fulfillment and inability to actually confront the world we face.

If this self-destructive Left-wing fringe ideological was not so impotent and politically marginal, an intelligent wealthy Right-wing funder would do well to fund them in order to split and further undermine any effective progressive alternatives. But that is clearly not necessary, as these “radical” Leftist (as opposed to significant radical Leftists such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, who are actually seeking to build effective political power and confront the power of the international corporate establishment — and confronting the real challenges of actually doing so) have completely self-marginalized themselves. Though the experience of Ralph Nader in 2000, in part supported covertly by Republicans,  show how dangerous they can become as a tool of the Right. That’s why they need to be confronted.