Now Is Not The Time to Say "Now Is Not The Time"

This article, posted originally on Fire On The Mountain makes the case for a particular strategic response to impending massive state and municipal budget cuts across the country. While the analysis contains some assumptions about who our friends are that most Kasama readers probably do not share, its central thrust reflects something of a crisis for left reformist politics that may produce some real ruptures for which revolutionaries should be prepared.

"This is a very tall order. That I am even suggesting this as a strategy may sound like music to the ears of leftists who are accustomed to making militant demands and not winning anything, but it sounds downright utopian to leftists and progressives in mass organizations and advocacy groups who are focused on the day-to-day and the defensive struggles that predominate in a conservative age. But now is not the time to say that "now is not the time." We either start raising these demands now, or we never will."

 

 

Of Blood and Stones

by Felix Dzerzhinsky

 

Note: This post Contains a lot of links, including to some publications with subscriber-only content. However, in the case of The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, it is possible to get around the subscriber firewall by taking the URL for the link, posting it into Google and hitting search, and then following the first link from Google to the story itself. Don't ask me why this works, but use it while it lasts!

The key front in the class struggle in the United States over the rest of this year is going to be over the shape of public budgets. Not just the Federal budget, but especially budgets at the lower levels: states, counties, municipalities, school districts, and public authorities and commissions covering everything from parking garages to parks to mass transit. Because there are thousands of different jurisdictions, the struggle will have a thousand variations, but make no mistake: it is a struggle of class against class, and the strategy of the political representatives of the ruling class benefits when the working class is divided. And I scarcely need to point out that the ruling class is set to win this one, big-time. At stake are the basic services and living standards of the working-class majority, but especially its poorest sectors. Unless the majority gets organized really fast, with the aid of some dynamic and visionary leadership to overcome those divisions, then the long-eroded living standards and overall social well-being of the working class are going to erode still further.

In other words, the people need a left, perhaps more now than at most times in history. And if the left is to develop a strategy to defend the people's interests in the midst of the state and local budget crisis, it is important to understand not only the causes of the crisis -- the bad economy combined with bad policy -- but also the interests behind it.

There are two capitalist interests behind the crisis, a proximate one and an ultimate one: (1) the rent-seeking of the bondholders and (2) the continued ideological offensive of the capitalist class as a whole. We should look at each of these in turn.

Bondholders

It's not hard to notice in this country that we do not, as a general rule, tax rich people to pay for projects of public benefit. Instead, we borrow the money from them and pay them back -- with interest -- for the privilege. Even in a more rational capitalist society (or indeed in a socialist one), there would be a need for debt financing for large public projects, but public and non-profit finance in the USA is set up to disproportionately benefit wealthy interests, and to ensure that the people who pay for most of it are the people least able to do so. If you were a vulgar Marxist, you might even say that the whole thing was deliberately set up this way.

States, school districts, counties, public authorities and other public entities, as well as large non-profit institutions (such as universities and hospitals), all raise capital by issuing tax-exempt bonds. These are also referred to as muncipal bonds or "munis." The borrower -- also called the "issuer," or the "obligor" in the case of non-profits -- then pays the bonds back over a period of years (30 is a typical figure). The borrower will pay a lower interest rate to the bondholders than a for-profit borrower with a similar credit rating would have to pay, because the bonds are tax-exempt. However, you have to be in a high enough tax bracket for the tax exemption to be worth it; if you're a person of more modest income and want some fixed-income securities for your retirement account, it is more worth it to you to buy for-profit corporate bonds, because the tax exemption on the muni bond would not be enough to offset the higher interest rate that you will receive from a for-profit borrower.

The result is that only rich people buy municipal bonds. They constitute a core of people who have a direct interest in state and local government finance, and whose sole concern is ensuring that they will be paid on time. This is why 60 Minutes chose a Wall Street analyst like Meredith Whitney to lead December's campaign commercial for Chris Christie. (Well, that and the fact that Whitney is taking an especially alarmist line on munis -- but her alarmism has been accurate in the past and may turn out to be accurate in this case as well.)

It is important to keep this in mind when public sector workers' pensions are described as over-generous. What you are hearing here, first of all, is the rentier's complaint that someone who has actually worked for a living his or her whole life is entitled to a claim on the financial resources of troubled state and local governments, when there might be danger of skipped payments or even defaults on obligations to the bondholders. This won't do, and as of right now the bondholders are a considerably more powerful constituency than organized public workforces, no matter how much the propaganda says otherwise. Cross city workers, and as a politician you can more than make up for any hit to your campaign PAC by scapegoating them in the eyes of an increasingly unsympathetic public, hardened by its own experiences in a dreary economy. Cross the bondholders, on the other hand, and your city is screwed, relatively speaking, forever: the city will never be able to borrow from these people again, except maybe at exorbitant interest rates that it could never afford anyway. And in that case you can kiss goodbye any ambitions of your own for higher office.

While this may sound simplistic, in its basic outlines this is how class rule actually happens at the local level; how the loyalties of politicians to the capitalist system are cemented at the beginning of their careers; and how the options for even limited reforms in favor of the working class become more and more restricted, so that a "There Is No Alternative" mentality reigns. Organizations of the working class, including its poorest sectors, can at best win improvements around the edges of such a system, but any gains are precarious, especially during times of austerity when the powerful rentier constituency of bondholders fears for their interest payments. Absent a mass movement (more than just a collection of working-class organizations), this situation will not be turned around.

The Ideological Offensive

This brings us to the second, "ultimate" and more important interest behind the state and local fiscal crisis: the ideological offensive of capital as a whole.

It is not necessary to go into detail here about the 30 years of the right-wing offensive since Reagan. But we should say something about what it is about. In a capitalist society, no matter how much the right wing likes to rant about the need for "smaller government," there is still a need for a state. Basic state functions at all levels of government are necessary for capitalism's functioning. The questions are: (1) who pays for the state and (2) who benefits from state action?

Capitalists are clear on what they would prefer: as much of the tax burden as possible shifted down the social scale; as few benefits as possible to go to the working class and the poor, both so that the state will be less expensive and so that people will be obliged to work for less because there is less-reliable state support for a basic income, health services, unemployment insurance, etc.; more benefits distributed upward in the form of privileged enclaves for some services (like lily-white school districts) as well as subsidies for "research and development" and other corporate welfare; and a preference for enhanced repressive functions (military at the national and international level; police and prisons at the lower levels of government) instead of social-welfare functions.

Make no mistake: the ultra-right view of proper state functions is the dominant one in the capitalist class. There may be "enlightened" capitalists who favor some ameliorative social-welfare measures, or who (like Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates's father) are relatively reasonable on tax matters. But the preponderant view among capitalists is that they are entitled to as much as they can get away with, and they chafe under the restrictions imposed on them by democracy, even as democratic initiative among the masses has corroded.

If you are reading this, chances are you have been frustrated with the Obama Administration from the left, and that is true whether or not you are among those who found the administration's deference to corporate interests surprising. The capitalist class, however, has by and large not seen the Administration in such a light. They have seen Obama as problematic, even hostile. The focus on health care restructuring (which in its final form will hit insurance company margins and potentially cost money in fines for employers who do not offer at least a minimal level of health insurance) and the Administration's appointment of the "pay czar" and occasional verbal lashing of the banks -- mild as these measures may have been, business viewed them with real alarm.

After the Democratic defeat in the mid-term elections, the Obama Administration did not see a need to re-energize the demoralized base, but a need to move further to the right to capture a rightward-moving "center" where it believes the votes really are. (Incidentally, this ought to serve as a lesson against all forms of "left" abstentionism or 1%-of-the-vote "third party" dilettantism in national elections.) Obama's "campaign to make peace with business" -- capped off by a Wall Street Journal editorial by the president himself announcing a campaign against regulations that "have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs" -- was seen by capital as the chastened contrition of a servant who had gotten out of hand. They describe it as "a small beginning in a much, much bigger arena of problems," saying that "the business community should have a seat at the table" now, as if it once did not.

You don't have to look hard to find a left critique of the current Administration that mentions the substantial Wall Street funding of the Obama campaign. It would be a mistake to see this as an expression of Wall Street's desires, however. Large sections of capital leaned toward the Democrats in 2008 because the Republicans in general and Bush in particular had been spectacularly discredited. To the extent that the capitalist class was dissatisfied with Bush, it was not for his domestic policies -- by and large, they loved their tax cuts -- but for his adventurist "over-reach" in warmongering, which was out of step with the "realist" imperialism of the Kissinger/Scowcroft/Eagleburger variety. But overseas disasters combined with real domestic discontent to form a perfect storm for Republicans, and capital recognized that it had to make the best of a situation where the population still has to be occasionally consulted about who should govern. Especially with the apex of the financial crisis, a Democratic electoral victory became inevitable in 2008, and capital steered its money toward the sure winners in the hopes of influencing policy. It is true that they felt comfortable doing this precisely because Obama was so favorable to capitalist interests; Wall Street's tolerance of "populism" from politicians does not go far at all. If -- for instance -- John Edwards had been the nominee, it is unlikely that he would have received such a warm welcome from capital, especially if he had continued to say the same things during the general election that he had said during the primary.

The right wing, with the approval of the broad swath of the capitalist class, scored an early victory in the Obama years by limiting the size and character of the economic stimulus. The "moderate" group in the Senate led by then-Republican Arlen Specter kept the total under $800 billion and weighted it more toward tax cuts. But the most important people's victory in the fight over the stimulus was the fiscal relief that the government granted the states, in the form of a greater Federal share in Medicaid funding (the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP) and more education funding.

With the Republicans taking over the House, further aid to the states is now out of the question. This is in keeping with Wall Street preferences and the preferences of finance capital worldwide, as evidenced by the position of Jamie Dimon and other leading bankers at the most recent Davos meeting, where they said that "governments around the world must stop banker-bashing," and also complained of high government debts and the possibility of inflation. These are absurdities in a world economy that is still as depressed as this one, but it is important never to underestimate the extent to which capitalists believe in their ideology of austerity for the many in order to secure the greatest short-term profits for the few.

So as the economic crisis continues, the question of who pays becomes ever more important, and Federal retrenchment in funding basic state functions amounts to a shift of the taxation burden on to people who can least afford it. As unfair as Federal taxes are, especially after the Bush tax policies recently continued by the Administration and the lame-duck Congress, the Federal tax structure still rests heavily on a progressive income tax, and looks all the more progressive still in comparison with the state and local tax burden.

If you look at Chris Christie's New Jersey, for instance, you will see that the richest 1% of the state (with annual family incomes of $732,000 or greater) pays an average of 7.4% of its income in state and local taxes after the Federal offset. If you are in the middle fifth (family incomes between $41,000 and $69,000), you pay 8.6% on average. For the poorest 20% of the people (family income less than $21,000), the percentage is 10.7%.

And New Jersey has one of the least regressive state and local tax regimes. The state has a progressive income tax, for instance. But the poorer you are, the more likely you are to live in an area with a low tax base, which means that your local taxes are going to have to be higher to fund basic services at the local level, which are receiving less help from the states in the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that the states are receiving less help from the Federal government. The worst aspect of this, of course, is at the school district level: For fifty years this has been the primary area of reproduction for white supremacy, with affluent whites walling themselves up in their rotten-borough school districts, jealously guarding their resources in the manner of a fortified settlement in Hebron.

As bad as the New Jersey example is, state and local taxes in other states are even worse. Neighboring Pennsylvania, for instance, has a flat income tax, and also relies heavily on regressive sales and excise taxes. If you're in the top 1% with family incomes over $428,000 a year, you pay on average less than 4% of your income in state and local taxes. If you're in the bottom fifth, with income under $19,000, you pay on average 11.2%.

Clearly the rich are winning the fight over the question of who pays. The answer is that the rest of us pay, in the form of reduced services, higher taxes for the majority, or both. How can we begin to fight our way out of this?

What Not to Do

Governors in every state are rolling out the austerity programs, and it is a bipartisan affair. We ignore the differences between the two parties at our own peril, especially at the Federal level, as I have noted. But at the state level, while the attack is going to be spearheaded by the Chris Christies, Nikki Haleys and Tom Corbetts, the Andrew Cuomos and the Jerry Browns are not going to be far behind. Even if a socialist were governor of some state, we would be severely circumscribed in our possible choices. We need people in the streets demanding a different way of doing things. Where can we start? Well, let's first look at a few places where we can't start.

In much of the country, the attack on public services is accompanied by an attack on public sector unions, especially on workers' pensions. The shortfall in US public pension funds is esimated at $2.5 trillion, a potential crisis that would not be as bad as it is if governments had properly funded pensions in better economic times, and if the investments of pension funds had not themselves fallen victim to the consequences of Wall Street's irresponsibility.

The idea that public-sector workers are responsible for state and local governments' financial woes is simply preposterous: States with little to no public-sector collective bargaining are also facing major budget problems. But that is not really the point. In especially hard economic times, it is easy for the enemies of the working class to drive a wedge between the hurting majority on the one hand and public-sector workers with good benefits on the other (even if those benefits have been won at the cost of wage increases for years or even decades). For Scott Walker in Wisconsin, "public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots." This is a lie, but like all effective lies it is half-true, and Walker scored points with it.

The big battalions of the public-sector unions are a necessary part of the fight. These workers do the work every day, they understand its importance and they are directly affected by cuts. But they need to couch their demands in the form of a defense of public services if they are to have any prayer of success. By and large the public-sector unions understand this, even if they have done a poor job of coordinating, getting the message out, and organizing alongside others who will be affected by cuts.

But even the best public-sector union fightback is not going to cut it this year, even in states outside the South where public-sector unions are a factor in politics.

This is because no fight to maintain services will win public support unless we start addressing the question of "who pays." The right wing is going to scream about the danger of tax increases. And they are going to make headway in this, even among many people who need better basic public services, because while the right wing is wrong in aggregate about high taxes (taxes in the US on the whole are low), in light of the lived experience of most people, it rings true. As we have seen, taxes at the state and local level are grossly unfair, and most people are paying more than what they ought to be paying. Republican scaremongering about a tax increase works with many of them, even in cases where the Republicans are really trying to protect an affluent minority from a tax increase, because people will not look at the details absent a serious program of mass education, and they immediately think that tax increases are aimed at them.

We can't continue to defend individual services for poor and working-class people by mounting a militant defense of one service which eventually "wins" by taking money away from another important service: transit vs. education vs. health care vs. environmental clean-up, for instance. How many times have we, as advocates and organizers, found ourselves in situations like these? Similarly, we can no longer expect to fund services with revenues derived primarily from the people who can least afford it. Think back to one of the earliest victories of the Obama Administration: Before the battle over health care, we won an extension and expansion of children's health insurance (SCHIP), a measure that had been twice vetoed under Bush. But it was funded by a regressive excise tax on cigarettes. Very soon, the tendency for state governments to tax cigarettes and alcohol, or to legalize some other form of gambling and tax the proceeds, is going to reach a point of rapidly-diminishing returns, if it hasn't already.

Make the Rich Pay

There is no avoiding the need to make the rich pay. Raising the demand to the point where it even gets a hearing is not going to be easy. But the two-point proposal (1) We need these services and (2) Here's where the money is going to come from is the only way to win real improvements for the people. This demand has been too long delayed, and we continue to ignore it at our peril.

In each state and local area, leaders need to identify ways to take some of the loot back from the hoarding rich, and we need to start organizing and mobilizing people to make this demand. This is going to differ from place to place. In Pennsylvania, for instance, there is still no extraction tax on the natural gas that drilling companies are taking from the Marcellus Shale through fracking; as of this writing, the failure to enact this tax has cost the state $128 million. The Republican governor and legislature -- all of them recipients of the industry's campaign contributions -- are not planning to move on this any time soon, even though two-thirds of the state's people support a tax. To win will require mobilization among the progressive base in the cities as well as in the Appalachian rural areas -- mostly dominated by Republicans -- where most of the drilling is going on. The money raised from an extraction tax will still not plug the state's budget hole, but it is a start. Some opportunity like this must exist no matter where you are in the country.

Once local- and state-based tax-the-rich movements are up and running, they will need to link up in the middle of the year, and make the organized demand for more Federal aid to the states.

This is a very tall order. That I am even suggesting this as a strategy may sound like music to the ears of leftists who are accustomed to making militant demands and not winning anything, but it sounds downright utopian to leftists and progressives in mass organizations and advocacy groups who are focused on the day-to-day and the defensive struggles that predominate in a conservative age. But now is not the time to say that "now is not the time." We either start raising these demands now, or we never will. We have some cause for hope in the discontent at the base provoked by the tax deal between the White House and Senate Republicans at the end of last year. MoveOn, union leaders, liberal TV talking heads -- all of them among the president's strongest supporters -- were angered by the massive giveaway to the rich, and the rank-and-file reponse of the Democratic faithful was real. Eventually, even many of the more progressive-minded members of Congress -- such as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio -- voted for the package out of desperation that the unemployed not be harmed further. But many other Democratic members of Congress rejected it from the left, and their votes reflected real sentiment at the base.

It is up to the left to organize that base, get people in the streets in creative protest, and thereby change the rules of the game. Right now we are far behind. If we don't act to change this, and quickly, then we have as good as given up.

Dig in.

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People in this conversation

  • Guest (eric ribellarsi)

    "The key front in the class struggle in the United States over the rest of this year is going to be over the shape of public budgets."

    Even if the tactics pursued on this front are more militant.. why is that assumed to be the key front of the class struggle? I'm interested to hear those assumptions unfolded.

  • The point Eric makes is a strong one (and a central one to the argument presented) but it also important to point out the implications of the assumptions: it places radical forces along the lines of defending one wing of imperialism against another, of defending Obama against the Republicans. It is a militant form of Alinskyism that emphasizes the tension between the capitalist state formation and its institutions (universities, nonprofits, etc) vs. Bondholders.

    An important feature of this ideology is that is remarkably <i>non-partisan</i>, in that any moderate liberal can agree with it. It does not prepare minds and organize forces for revolution, but rather prepares minds for capitalist welfare, and neutralizes potentially radical forces.

    There may well be radical activity around push back from budget cuts. But is it where revolutionary forces should center their work? Why? We all know we're getting fucked, but we want a way out of this system - not "fight back" to get it to be more gentle about the process.

  • Guest (EnCee)

    I think it's one of the top political battles for the working class this year, before the right wing starts gearing up for the next elections, but I don't know if it's the key one. In many places, like Los Angeles at least, these public sector attacks are also going on with other assaults on the working class. The increased privatization of education through the Charter Schools pushed by the likes of the Gates Foundation is an example. This is being pursued both by an attack on public education, largely by attacking the teacher's unions, and these privatization schemes.
    The important thing is to figure out how to intervene. Arguing the relative merit of how important this is on the scale of problems facing the working class does not seem productive. I want to help the public workers unions. The question is how? A lot of them, despite themselves, almost seem like they don't want to be helped or are just going along with business as usual. Again, look at the teachers unions in Los Angeles. The leadership seems to be aiming to negotiate some sort of truce or forced concessions rather than mounting a militant fightback, all the while whittling away the strength of their base and eroding the solidarity a union so desperately needs externally and internally. The other public unions also seem to be in their own world. They're almost stubborn, if I can use a personal characteristic to describe them. Despite all this, they deserve to be helped or get support from the mass of people in some form or another. I'm just at a loss for what will work or move them to where they need to be.
    One of the things that keeps dogging me too, is that we are in a defensive period so how much are we supposed to fightback? What are realistic expectations for a time like this?

  • Guest (EnCee)

    Yeah, the way Celtic poses that question makes me think a lot about what the role of someone oriented toward a revolutionary theory should be. Sometimes I see a definite schism postulated by people in the comments or on this site that the everyday fightback is not connected to the process of systemic change or many times made that way through bad practice or bad politics/theory. If that's the case, is it something we need to change or should our focus and orientation be somewhere else?

  • Guest (Labor Shall Rule)

    What's going on in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and every other European country facing austerity proves that revolutionary polarization can arise from private sector attempts to eviscerate the remainders of the welfare state.

    Is there not a way to connect anti-budget cut and hike demands with what is political? Celtic is arguing that fighting for alternate ruling class policy (like ending foreclosures, a more progressive tax rate) indisputably dis-attaches ourselves from what makes us ideologically unique from liberals. It keeps things within their zone of influence, so to speak.

    But why should we not have broad unity with those who will fightback? As long as we do not accept the conciliation that trade union and liberal leadership will offer and stress independence in organization then this shouldn't be a problem. Also, what if specific political demands arise out of that fightback that radical forces can exploit? Like, a demand to free organizers that were thrown in jail on trumped-up charges, or to bring certain police to justice for brutality?

  • Guest (Jimmy Higgins)

    There is an actual comment thread developing on this article at <a href="/http://firemtn.blogspot.com/2011/02/of-blood-and-stones.html" rel="nofollow">Fire on the Mountain</a>, which differs--no surprise--in content from the one here, but does actually raise the issue of the responsibilities of communists.
    I also want to unite with the comment by EnCee:<blockquote>A lot of them, despite themselves, almost seem like they don’t want to be helped or are just going along with business as usual. Again, look at the teachers unions in Los Angeles.</blockquote>
    This problematic is undermining the ability of the trade unions as a whole to respond to the most serious sustained assault by capital since at least the early Reagan era. Here in NYC, the building trades, presently dominant in the Central Labor Council, have struck a separate peace with our new anti-labor governor, Andrew Cuomo, to stand aside as his assaults on the public sector unions ramp up, in exchange for promises of government construction projects for their members (currently facing an unemployment rate of over 40%!). Even among city workers, united resistance is but a dream--the United Federation of Teachers is bidding for its own deal with the new administration.

  • Guest (RW Harvey)

    To echo LSR above, tt does not necessarily follow that struggles that erupt within the predominantly economic sphere must lead to an economist approach. As the saying goes: politics is concentrted economics and when austerity begins to further erode the American dream, well, who knows where the next Tahrir Square might develop in the US. Below are two links regarding the cost of food and commodities and the faultlines coursing through the Egyptian polity.

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&amp;aid=23079 />
    http://www.counterpunch.org/alvarez02042011.html

    It is also true that many (and this is also in this essay) still believe that Obama can be made to see the light, that he is (against his deeper instincts) corralled by the Republicans, that pressuring him by feigning to withdraw electoral support, etc., will turn the US crisis around. This is, and will be, a major ideological marker, because threats to the American lifestyle have traditionally been foisted upon the backs of immigrants, greedy unions, oil-rich countries, etc. What appears first as economic issues, immediately collides with internationalism and with agitation and exposure as to the true nature of the ruling class, regardless of Democrat or Republican.

    It is important that revolutionaries avoid the complacency that says this is the way the system works, grinding down the majority of people in the machine of crisis, while thinking something more sexy (read: more overtly political) will be the galvanizing agent for mass resistance and upheaval.

  • Guest (Felix Dzerzhinsky)

    Thanks for the re-posting; I think you left out my pseudonym in the byline here, but I am the original author.

    I don't have a whole lot of time to comment in detail at the moment, but I want to make sure everyone grasps the point I'm trying to make: the fight over public budgets is the key front in the class struggle, and I mean that in all of its manifestations, not just the attack on the public-sector workers who do the actual work. So when <b>EnCee</b> above mentions the attack on public education, s/he is in line with what I am trying to say; it is not just about the standards of school teachers and other school district workers, it is about the public services that the class as a whole relies on.

    I'm not sure I can answer Eric's question -- "Why is that assumed to be the key front of the class struggle?" -- any better than I already did in the article itself. I say above that "At stake are the basic services and living standards of the working-class majority, but especially its poorest sectors." We are talking about many tens of billions of dollars (possibly trillions) in public programs and basic services that serve the needs of the masses, as well as billions of dollars in wages, pension, and benefits for the public-sector workers who do the work.

    Cuts to Medicaid (typified by Arizona's removal of transplants from coverage); cuts to education leading to teacher layoffs; the inability of cities to plow their citizens out of snowstorms in a timely fashion, especially in the poorer areas -- all of these are matters of class struggle. I am reminded of Cabral's statement: <i>"Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone's head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children."</i> That is the indispensable starting point for any political agitation, let alone disciplined revolutionary organization.

    My analysis is not based on "assumptions about who our friends are." It is based on a pessimistic analysis of our organizational strength. It is a gross oversimplification of what I am saying here to claim that I am arguing for "defending Obama against the Republicans." I do argue for understanding the real forces at work at the national level: the end of Federal aid to the states, for instance, is a major problem, and the difference between Democrats and Republicans on this key matter is impossible to deny; the mid-term elections made a big difference for the worse on this matter. If people think that it's "revolutionary" to pretend that these differences don't exist, then that's your prerogative, but I am reminded of Marx's dictum that "Ignorance never yet helped anybody" (not to mention Mao's "no investigation, no right to speak").

    At the same time, I am explicit in saying that the state and local austerity drive is bipartisan, and that even if one of us were made governor of a state or -- even worse -- mayor of a city tomorrow -- we would still face severe difficulties in the absence of a mass movement. So that's what I argue for: a mass movement to take resources back from the hoarding rich, starting with militant organizing to tax the rich in any way we find available at the local and state level. And by organizing enough people to widen the scope of possible demands.

    I'd like to hear what people think of <i>that</i> strategy, not some caricature of a strategy that you <i>think</i> I am advocating based on a reading of this article that is, quite frankly, superficial.

  • Guest (contrarian)

    The worst thing about this article is the old cliche--"tax the rich." Working people creatre all wealth. Ultimately, the working class is the source of ALL taxes paid, regardless of who the taxes are technically imposed on. Certainly one can fight against cutbacks in needed social programs, but obscuring who really pays for it all is wrong.

  • Guest (Thomas)

    Not to revive the zombie of old debates, but I'd like to take a minute and engage with Eric and Patrick's criticism of the piece. Here we go, again.

    Celticfire:
    <blockquote>...it places radical forces along the lines of defending one wing of imperialism against another, of defending Obama against the Republicans. It is a militant form of Alinskyism that emphasizes the tension between the capitalist state formation and its institutions (universities, nonprofits, etc) vs. Bondholders.

    An important feature of this ideology is that is remarkably non-partisan, in that any moderate liberal can agree with it. It does not prepare minds and organize forces for revolution, but rather prepares minds for capitalist welfare, and neutralizes potentially radical forces.

    There may well be radical activity around push back from budget cuts. But is it where revolutionary forces should center their work? Why? We all know we’re getting fucked, but we want a way out of this system – not “fight back” to get it to be more gentle about the process.</blockquote>

    Let's start with the first claim--that it pits "one wing of imperialism against another;" "defends Obama against Republicans." Is that the very <i>essence</i> of what's going on in budget cuts fights? I'm not so convinced. It is not as if Democrats are unaccustomed to the administration of austerity programs, or that in key and fundamental ways the Democrats' and Republicans' agendas are shared in this area. What I see here isn't so much a call to reify the Republicans as our enemy and "stand with Obama," but rather to situate struggle around budget cuts issues against the State, regardless of its helm. Taking up the recommendation of the article positions us <i>against a systemic implementation of austerity</i>--against the position on teachers' unions, ie, of Obama's Education Secretary.

    Moreover I feel uncertain that budget cuts work is necessarily a "militant Alinskyism"--a d'jour critique that is unexplained. I'm happy that Labor Shall Rule called our attention to Europe. Are we to assume that the strikes against austerity by students in the UK had <i>no</i> ideological component, or radicalizing potential? Were they a British militant Alinskyism? How neutralized were radical forces when they sieged the royalty's limousine and chanted off with their heads?

    Patrick goes on to say that it is emphatically "non-partisan," an ideology that even moderate liberals might agree with. While in my experience moderate liberals are often cautious about calls to tax the rich--to redistribute wealth--maybe it is different in Portland. In any case, my sense is that the work "does not prepare minds...for revolution" inasmuch as we withdraw from it and don't engage in such preparations. How will the radical elements of fight back struggles (and we are certainly dumb to think that there is no such potential within those movements) be won over to "partisan" politics when "partisans" don't exist within them?

    This is of course a reminder of a previous engagement with Kasama's forces that was never wrapped up (the "why do you think we should do mass work at all?" one). It would be helpful if, here, Patrick might explain what he actually means in concrete ways the act of "organiz[ing] forces for revolution" (instead of doing fight back works. That phrase actually has no meaning; it is instead a mantra used to demarcate who is (and, more frequently and importantly at Kasama) who is <b>not</b> revolutionary more than point to any actual programmatic orientation. To wit: Do we start accumulating weapons? Training ourselves in survival techniques? Urban warfare? Or, are we talking about mostly intellectual acts of thereotical development, ideological training, etc.? If <i>that's</i> what we're talking about, then aren't fight back struggles a very good place to do that within?

    Patrick concedes that indeed there may be radical (but not revolutionary!) forces at work within the fight back campaigns that are being waged, but asks us sharply whether it is where revolutionaries should concentrate their work. The answer is of course implied: no, it is not where we should concentrate our work in his view (and we should leave those radical forces to their own devices as opposed to develop their revolutionary outlook). Instead, we should concentrate our forces...

    ...chirp, chirp...

  • Guest (land)

    The key thing is paying attention to public budgets?????

    Maybe if you are on the City Council.

    If that is the key thing then what are all the things that are not the key things?

    I don't mesan to be sarcastic but hey there are places that do not even have public budgets.

    In Nepal some people sell their organs to keep their land. Or they sell their children because they cannot feed them.

    But even if they did have public budgets under attack would that be what revolutionaries would want to make a priority???

  • Guest (big L)

    I haven't actually read the article posted yet, but I would like to take a stab at addressing some part of Eric's first post:

    "Even if the tactics pursued on this front are more militant.. why is that assumed to be the key front of the class struggle?"

    I'm not sure how to define the key front of the class struggle, except perhaps to identify various moments in which the combativeness of sections of the class against the state, and against capital, on the practical level, as well as on the reflective/theoretical level is the sharpest.

    In California during the 2009/2010 school year, the fight back against the budget cuts became rather pointed. Students from working class background, and overwhelmingly students of color, battled the police in places like Davis, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Los Angeles amongst other places. The role of the state became clear in the streets ("behind every budget cut is a line of riot police"), as well as in the agitational literature and political lines which the radical and revolutionary forces embedded within the movements were pushing in meetings and amongst activists and individual participants. This to me was a moment which might be identified as one of the forefronts of the class struggle during that time and in those spaces.

    So it's not just about the "tactics" being used in isolation from the movement of people and the way in which the role of the state becomes seen in clearer relief by the participants of the struggle as well as the mass of working people who are (temporarily?) watching from the sidelines.

    Additionally, amongst the various building occupations which occurred, an anti-capitalist politic and strategy was more and more being pushed into the practical imaginations of various sectors of the class. The tactical relationship between these occupations and the sit down strikes of the 30s, as well as the connections drawn between the manifestos issued by these students made clear their anti-capitalist, and even pro-communist viewpoints and intentions (albeit often in the form of 'communization').

    It seems to me that these two aspects are crucial towards determining the importance of struggles: the degree of practical combativeness against the state &amp; capital, as well as the theoretical clarity drawn through the course of these struggles (including polemics against existing left formations and the roles they play within the struggles). The role of communist revolutionaries is clear: they must be there alongside people initiating these processes and helping to gain strategic clarity in the midst of the ideological fog.

  • First, Felix. Sorry about dropping your name. Its there now.

    While I think the characterization of Wall Street's displeasure with Obama in your piece is exaggerated, I posted this piece because I think it contains some important points.

    The first, of course, which I frankly did not expect to be so controversial, is that budget battles will be a key front in the class struggle this year. This seemed to me so obvious that I didn't think an argument was needed. But here goes:

    The struggle over budgets is not principally a struggle between state institutions and bondholders but between the people who depend on those institutions either as public employees or as recipients of services and the bondholders.

    We don't live in Nepal. We live in a country where municipal, state and federal budgets are how many of the things that working and oppressed people have won over the past century are paid for. Public education, from pre-k to grad schools; regular trash collection; public hospitals and clinics; parks; libraries; fire fighters; etc... these are all functions that have been socialized in the course of popular struggles. And while -- like elections -- there is a powerful legitimizing ideological function played here on behalf of the capitalist state, that is not going to just go away if revolutionaries choose to ignore it.

    Budget fights have a certain character in normal times. They are dominated by the highly compromised public employees unions who tend to be much better organized and have more resources than the recipients of services (whether those are seniors who depend on home health aides or public college students). They tend to be be characterized by highly ritualized and impotent forms of mass mobilization, lobbying and letter writing and the like that generally do not offer many opportunities to advance revolutionary politics. But then there are times of crisis when the cuts go deep and the potential exists to mobilize much broader forces. The recent examples of Greece, France and England, as well as California, are instructive here.

    One of the best demonstrations I ever attended was a rally against budget cuts organized by NYPIRG at the NY state capitol in Albany. As one Democratic official after another droned on from the stage, the crowd grew restive and a breakaway lead all but the most lifeless on an impromptu march followed by a successful storming of the state capitol building and the state department of education building. Inside both buildings the chant was simple and relentless: "Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!" It was the beginning of several months of intense struggles that radicalized a whole cohort of CUNY students. Needless to say, the RCP was not there, since such "economist" struggles were hopelessly tainted or some such shit.

    I'll just say. I think the reticence to get involved in such struggles is dogmatic. When I was an anarchist I remember hearing other anarchists argue that it was wrong to "make demands on the capitalist state" because doing so supposedly legitimized the state. This is, in my view, a highly mechanical view of both popular consciousness and the processes by which the capitalist state legitimizes itself.

    The budget fights that will explode this year, whether we as revolutionaries jump into them or not, are important expressions of a generalized push to make the poorest pay for the financial crisis and the fightback against the cuts will likely have a very sharp class character in spite of the ceaseless efforts of the unions to chill that out. The leaders of the unions and the liberals will for the most part NOT be raising the slogan "tax the rich" (or even better the more ominous "make the rich pay") precisely because such a slogan threatens their "united front" with the supposed left-wing of capital represented by Obama and the Dems. It will be radicals and revolutionaries who will be raising it, but I suspect it will resonate well beyond them and in some instances local labor leaders and individual liberals will take it up. That, I submit, is a good thing.

    The question of where and how Kasama should concentrate itself is a separate one from whether this fight will be an important one this year, and one that will not at any rate be decided in a blog discussion. But whether all or some or none of us end out participating in this particular struggle, it will very likely be an important and sharp one and one that deserves at least our attention. Large numbers of oppressed people will likely be drawn into political life and many potentially radicalized. Whether they are then reabsorbed by existing apparatuses depends of course on what revolutionaries are able to do and what we choose to do. Whether we join this particular fight, budget battles will be important again in the future and they, like elections, pose particular challenges to revolutionaries that we need to discuss and figure out how to meet rather than snidely dismiss.

  • Guest (celticfire)

    Thomas,

    I am weary to get into this again, if only because I have explained my views many times before, as have others of Kasama about our <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2011/01/03/grasping-the-theoretical-knife-a-response-to-club-jacobin/">http://kasamaproject.org/2011/01/03/grasping-the-theoretical-knife-a-response-to-club-jacobin/" rel="nofollow">principle differences</a>. But I will do it again, with the assumption that we are both trying to forge a deeper understanding.

    I think the strategy of centering radical forces around budget cuts <b>without examination</b> is an maneuver to align Leftist forces around support and cushioning for Obama - <i>especially</i> with the elections coming around the corner. Even now as social security now has a negative balance, the Democrats are posturing as the saviors of social security from the evil Republicans/Tea baggers, even though we both know the Democrats <i>will</i> support some austerity measures against social security.

    <blockquote>
    Are we to assume that the strikes against austerity by students in the UK had no ideological component, or radicalizing potential? Were they a British militant Alinskyism? How neutralized were radical forces when they sieged the royalty’s limousine and chanted off with their heads?</blockquote>

    As profoundly motivating as these events were, I have to ask: are they a model for strategic goals? Can we focus our energies around a struggle that (frankly) did not overthrow any governments? The general strike in France recently was pretty fucking great - but lets have some materialist perspective here: it was <b>not</b> the revolution.

    I am not dismissing them: there is a good deal to learn and sum up about those experiences that may provide helpful blueprints for possible revolutionary scenarios.

    Then, Thomas you tell us that we should join local struggles against budget cuts, while at the same time you assert that I advocate the same kind of localism:

    <blockquote>
    While in my experience moderate liberals are often cautious about calls to tax the rich–to redistribute wealth–maybe it is different in Portland. </blockquote>

    This is full of irony. I advocate explicitly not this orientation: we need strategies that orient us towards liberation on a scale of humanity, precisely not the kind of regionalism you are promoting.

    Then you add this:

    <blockquote>
    This is of course a reminder of a previous engagement with Kasama’s forces that was never wrapped up (the “why do you think we should do mass work at all?” one). </blockquote>

    No one, I repeat, no one said we shouldn't do mass work at all. What <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2011/01/03/grasping-the-theoretical-knife-a-response-to-club-jacobin/">http://kasamaproject.org/2011/01/03/grasping-the-theoretical-knife-a-response-to-club-jacobin/" rel="nofollow">we did say</a>:

    <blockquote>
    Is it true that any “claim to be a political organization” rests on the legitimization of “daily organizing”? Can’t we perhaps answer that a claim to be a *revolutionary* political organization requires having worked out a *revolutionary* method for doing mass work? Is it true that our main, even our only, task should be to take up “daily organizing” around various demands?
    </blockquote>

    So, yes we do want to challenge the ingrained assumptions of fetishizing particular forms of struggle, like general strikes.

    <blockquote>
    It would be helpful if, here, Patrick might explain what he actually means in concrete ways the act of “organiz[ing] forces for revolution” (instead of doing fight back works. That phrase actually has no meaning; it is instead a mantra used to demarcate who is (and, more frequently and importantly at Kasama) who is not revolutionary more than point to any actual programmatic orientation.
    </blockquote>

    The phrase (preparing minds and organizing forces for revolution) maybe an empty one to you, but this phrase has acute meaning for those of us who imagine struggles beyond mere economic demands (like actual liberation).

    So yes comrade: radical forces may emerge (and probably will) from these economic struggles. But what are our long term interests? How do you see localized struggles for economic demands escalating into full blown revolution?

    And again, how do you imagine this movement without yet again getting trapped into playing ball for the Dems?

  • Guest (Jimmy Higgins)

    I, for one, am not sure what this means:<blockquote>So, yes we do want to challenge the ingrained assumptions of fetishizing particular forms of struggle, like general strikes.</blockquote>I assume it's a jab at compulsive calls for them by some (notably from the anarchist and Trotskyist traditions).

    On the other hand, I'd love to have an <i>actual general strike in the US to fetishize.

  • Guest (Felix Dzerzhinsky)

    I appreciate that <b>Tellnolies</b> has actually read the article, which is more than can be said for some of the people posting here. <b>Land</b> says that "paying attention to public budgets" is of little consequence unless you're "on City Council," which is problematic in two ways: (1) it assumes that revolutionaries will always be so inconsequential in the United States that we could never even win a City Council seat, and that even if we did, there would be no need to actually immerse ourselves in the concrete struggles that arise from it; and (2) it shows that <b>Land</b> didn't even read the article, since it discusses budget struggles at all levels, not just municipal. S/he then talks about people selling their organs in Nepal; am I to take it that <b>Land</b> is based in Nepal and not the United States? Something tells me that that's not the case.

    Too many of the respondents here display a "seriousness deficit," and their inability -- or rather unwillingness -- to understand the gravity of the situation reminds me that "ultra" posturing is really just a "left" version of liberalism. In this case, the seventh type of liberalism: "To be among the masses and fail to conduct propaganda and agitation or speak at meetings or conduct investigations and inquiries among them, and instead to be indifferent to them and show no concern for their well-being, forgetting that one is a Communist and behaving as if one were an ordinary non-Communist."

    Obviously <b>Thomas</b> posted here in agreement with most of what I said, as has <b>Jimmy Higgins</b>. Of those who posted critically, the comments of <b>Celticfire</b> and <b>Contrarian</b> (and the already-mentioned <b>Land</b>;) are, quite frankly, weird. Other than pointing out that I don't need high school-level lectures on the basics of the labor theory of value, I won't spend further time on them. The contributions of <b>Tellnolies</b> are the only criticisms here that I find it useful to take seriously, so I will do that.

    First, <b>Tellnolies</b> says that "the characterization of Wall Street's displeasure with Obama" is "exaggerated" in the article. Unfortunately, I don't think I exaggerated the evidence in front of my face over the last couple of years. My point is that even though, objectively speaking, the Obama Administration has made no huge moves to undermine capitalist profits or class rule -- and indeed, the Obama campaign never promised to do so -- the capitalist class by and large does not see it that way. This is the actual consciousness of the capitalists themselves, their view of things even if it is not in accord with reality. If you've read the business press over the last couple of years, where the capitalists actually talk to eachother, you will have seen rampant concern over the political direction of the Administration in focusing on health care restructuring (even though they brought <i>sectors</i> of capital -- like the pharmaceutical industry -- into the tent on that one), over appointments to agencies like the NLRB, over the new regulatory bodies that will oversee Wall Street in the wake of the Dodd-Frank bill, over the very "rhetoric" of Obama on the subject of Wall Street excess, etc. Mild as these are, capitalists keep a sharp eye out for anything that even remotely threatens to cut into their profits, and they have raised complaints constantly. The Democratic defeat in November and Obama's move to court the Chamber has been received with warm satisfaction in these quarters, but they saw the "shellacking" of Obama in the mid-terms as well-deserved and salutary for their purposes.

    <b>Tellnolies</b> unites with my argument on the importance of budget fights as class struggles, as against abstractions about "the state" that ignore the fact that when we talk about government services, we are mostly talking about important gains won by the working class over the last century or so. However, I want to make sure that my original analysis is fully understood: the assault on public budgets that benefit the working class is <i>not</i> only about the <i>proximate</i> interests of the bondholders who seek to ensure that they get paid before everyone else. It is also an <i>ideological</i> assault by <i>capital as a whole</i>. This is why I laid emphasis on the divisions at the Federal level, and the real factors behind the pullback of Federal aid to the states: Even though the Republicans are most opposed to further support for state budgets, it is not only about "partisan politics" in the mainstream sense, but is a reflection of the agenda held by the broad majority of the capitalist class. Pick up any business paper right now -- today! -- and they are banging on about the dangers of inflation, which is why they're calling for austerity, etc. You may think that this is insane in the middle of a recession, when the recovery in the United States has barely begun. And you would be right -- it is insane. Yet it is a <i>mainstream</i> view among capitalists.

    To some extent, capital will try to rein in the loonier parts of the right wing that got them elected in the first place. <a href="/http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704858404576134241057045446.html" rel="nofollow">Some Republicans are calling for the states to be able to declare bankruptcy</a>; they want them to be able to do this so that they can break contracts with state workers' unions and even pull back not only on pension obligations accrued in the future, but obligations already accrued to workers. This sort of loony tebaggery is <i>not</i> the mainstream capitalist view, and you have business commentators telling the activist right to <a href="/http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-01-06/busting-unions-with-bankruptcy-not-chapter-9-way-commentary-by-joe-mysak.html" rel="nofollow">"grow up"</a> when it comes to their war of vengeance on public-employee unions. The problem, of course, is that if more defaults happen, the bondholders are going to get screwed, too, and the markets will be in turmoil as a result.

    But aside from capital's need to keep the crackpots out of the equation when actually making policy, the teabaggers are at worst a nuisance from their point of view, and on balance have been more useful than problematic for them because of their militant, corporate-financed stance <i>for</i> austerity. The overall austerity drive -- really a "make everyone but the rich pay" campaign -- comes straight from the mainstream of capital itself.

    So it is the central front in the US class struggle, and it is a struggle that our side is losing. On this website at least, I don't think that even <b>Tellnolies</b> quite grasps the seriousness of what I'm saying. S/he quite correctly recognizes (<i>contra</i> the unserious participants there) that the mainstream of the progressive organizations will not generally be raising "Make the rich pay" demands, and that I am advocating that as a <i>left</i> strategy, for radicals to gin up struggle. But the tone of the analysis (from <b>Tellnolies</b>, <b>EnCee</b> and <b>Big L</b> for instance) is curiously passive: There are supposedly going to be all of these struggles that "explode" this year, and we are supposed to evaluate whether and how to participate and "figure out how to intervene." But that's not how it works. No struggle in non-revolutionary times -- nor even really in revolutionary times -- is spontaneous. Someone has to lead those struggles, come up with the organizing rap and actually talk to people and get them in motion, formulate the immediate demands and write the leaflets, call the press conferences, make the signs for demonstrations, etc. In much of the country, the fight will <i>not happen at all</i> unless there are more people -- presumably revolutionaries -- out there actually organizing it. And even if people <i>other</i> than revolutionaries do organize it, it's hardly helpful for revolutionaries to show up late to the game and tell people "You're going about this the wrong way; here's the ideology you need." People will take ideological direction from leaders who are actually there when struggle happens -- or more precisely, who <i>make</i> the struggle happen.

  • Celticfire,

    It is undoubtedly true that there are forces that will seek to use the upcoming fights against austerity budgets to corral people into supporting Obama and that such forces likely see the budget battles as more auspicious terrain for such efforts than other prospective areas of mass work. But it is one-sided to think that is the only consideration here.

    Before we get into deconstructing the political lines of the various small left organizations that will be involved in this work we need to have a proper understanding of the larger dimensions, namely what these budget battles actually mean in terms of the class struggle. Here I think you aren't seeing the forest for the trees.

    The budget cuts that are coming down are not a trivial thing. They will sharply exacerbate the effects of the current crisis in the lives of poor and working people everywhere. They are arguably the main thrust of a generalized assault on the conquests of previous waves of struggle. And as such they can be expected to generate resistance and quite probably on a mass scale that we have so far not yet seen during the Obama administration.

    Within that context different forces will be maneuvering towards different ends. A lot of forces -- including not just unions, community organizations and other non-profits, but also left groups that are to various degrees woven into those other forces -- will be pulled in different directions by the need on the one hand to resist cuts that are an assault on their economic base, and on the other to channel the fightback so that it doesn't deepen discontent with Obama. This contradiction obviously runs right down the middle of Felix's piece here, and that is one thing I wanted to see drawn out here. The fact is, of course, that it is not just Democratic mayors and governors who are pushing these austerity measures, but the Obama administration as well that in its call for freezes on the pay of federal workers, its assault on public education, its extension of the Bush tax cuts, and so on, that is framing the question nationally. So while there are folks who are hoping to channel the discontent that will be mobilized around the budget battles into enthusiasm for the Dems in the 2012 elections, their arguments will require some serious contortions that may make them considerably less persuasive. As a slogan, "Tax the Rich, Re-Elect Obama" involves a level of cognitive dissonance that many will find difficult to sustain.

    But only if there are revolutionary voices in the mix, revolutionaries involved in these struggles, involved in building the coalitions, organizing the demonstrations, choosing the demands and speakers, leading the chants, and participating in the formal and informal processes of summation that will occur as this particular round of struggles comes to a close.

    There is a tendency that comes out of the practice of the RCP to view any involvement in struggles around the economic conditions of peoples lives as "economism" and to treat such struggles with a sneering contempt. I saw this in the 1995 budget fights in New York and I hear echoes of it in the response here. But that is not what economism is. Economism has to do with the posture that ostensible revolutionaries take in relation to those struggles. Economism is the belief that the day to day economic struggles of the working class will on their own give rise to revolutionary consciousness and that therefore the role of revolutionaries is simply to build such struggles. We fight economism not by abstaining from such struggles, which actually concedes the field to it, but precisely by actively promoting explicitly revolutionary politics within them, not in a sectarian manner that sabotages their prospects for winning reforms, but rather by helping people to see in the course of struggle the necessity for radical and revolutionary forms of action and organization.

    (An additional note here. While budget battles involve economic questions, they are also inherently political in a way that more genuinely localized fights based in individual workplaces or neighborhoods are not necessarily. This is even more the case if there is an effort to link them up nationally, which is precisely what Felix is proposing here.)

    As I said before, the question of where Kasama, as a small new formation with limited resources, chooses to focus its energies is a distinct one. But this blog is a space where we hope that far broader radical and revolutionary minded forces can come and discuss what it means to engage in all sorts of different areas of work in a revolutionary manner. We do not have a large revolutionary organization or party that is in a position to strategically orient the work of even a large fraction of the left in the US. So lots of people coming to these discussions will be engaged in areas of mass work that we might not ourselves prioritize. It is, I think, sectarian to sweepingly condemn broad areas of mass work in the manner that some have here. This does not mean we shouldn't be willing to criticize methods of work that we see as economist. There will be plenty of economism in the budget fights to criticize. But it does mean that our criticisms will have to be grounded in serious investigation and reflection, which needless to say is hard to obtain if we aren't ourselves in the mix.

  • Guest (celticfire)

    TNL:

    To some degree, I think we are speaking past each other. I agree that these budget cuts will shape in very deep ways what resistance looks like in this country for a time to come, and that they are not trivial. So we can agree on the scale of these things.

    However, what I am attempting to speak to is not just the political fascinations of small sects, but really the political line of <i>most</i> of the current Left in this country. Specifically, a idealizing of general strike and voting tactics.

    We also agree about what the Democrats are actually doing, and that they are actively complicit in these austerity programs. But already in news media like NPR, the Democrats are being portrayed as the "people's voice" against the Republicans - and we need to expose this.


    The last number of years I have centered myself around economic work, beginning with organizing a "Economic Crisis" even that gathered nearly 1,000 activists around issues of health care, housing, transportation, etc. Myself and others started a community based transit riders union on the model of the LA Strategy Center (who I still hold in high esteem).

    I have a lot of experience in both how these activists perceive social change and how they work on the ground and the cold truth is that much of it is not long term solutions: they are the same appeals to local ruling governments for funding welfare of people. These appeals are almost always ignored (even with hundreds or thousands of supporters) and this makes this particular orientation a strikingly poor tool.

    Now, I think it is important to note that while <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2009/10/20/mike-ely-on-economic-struggle-and-economism-among-revolutionaries/" rel="nofollow">economic work is not the same as economism</a>, the same work without clearly defined goals and a culture of resistance is just the same generic activism that has been around for decades.

    So again: I am not arguing (like the RCP did) that economic work is a waste of time. But it needs to <b>actually revolutionary</b>, open and hostile to established distractions (NGOs). And more than that: it needs to be a hell of a lot more creative the grabbing strategies developed by the Comintern.

  • Guest (celticfire)

  • Guest (Thomas)

    I think there's a good deal of misreading of what I said, so I want to clarify what it is that I'm getting at without invoking 'weariness' inasmuch as I feel like disagreements on this issue help to get at what, in reality, the meaning of those past debates were. I think this horse is not quite yet dead. So, onward--

    Celticfire:<blockquote>I think the strategy of centering radical forces around budget cuts without examination is an maneuver to align Leftist forces around support and cushioning for Obama – especially with the elections coming around the corner. Even now as social security now has a negative balance, the Democrats are posturing as the saviors of social security from the evil Republicans/Tea baggers, even though we both know the Democrats will support some austerity measures against social security.</blockquote>

    Amusingly, I don't have any disagreement with this whatsoever; certainly I wouldn't advocate that we do <i>anything</i> without examination. On the other hand I do think there's a great deal of worth in having radical/revolutionary participation in these struggles precisely so that this error is avoided and there is a sharpening of the line of struggle against the State. To repeat myself, I think your description of the pitfalls of the work are more likely to ensnare it insomuch as we don't help wave the warning flags about those very pitfalls. There is a great radicalizing potential within the work around public services that exists <i>without</i> us; people will lose to varying degrees no matter whose election they support, and, again, at all levels of government Democrats and Republicans are equally happy to implement austerity measures even if they do so in different ways. Who will be there to help capture, sharpen, and orient that radicalism to more programmatic, ideological aims? Where do those radicals go? And, what are the demands of those groups of radicals without an analysis of the State?

    Celticfire continues:
    <blockquote>Then, Thomas you tell us that we should join local struggles against budget cuts, while at the same time you assert that I advocate the same kind of localism</blockquote>

    Well, nowhere did I actually say this and so am curious about where you have pulled this from. In any case, what I do think is that there is not something inherently <i>nonrevolutionary</i> about the budget cuts work; this is not very dialectical in thinking. My sense is that internal to the budget cuts work there is real reformism and also real radicalism that can be shaped into something with a revolutionary character. Neither path is <i>inevitable</i>, but that's the sense that I have gotten from your critique here--we are necessarily pulled in the reformist/economist direction. I am happy to be corrected.

    Moreover I don't think that you asserted any form of localism; sorry that I wasn't clear. What I disagree with is the notion that even moderate liberals will find nothing to disagree with in the original piece, but want to acknowledge that what constitutes a 'moderate liberal' in your area may not (well, let's be real, certainly does not) constitute a 'moderate liberal' here (Patrick and I, very much acquainted, will know where the geographic descriptions refer to; for those who are less acquainted with us, I am speaking of Portland, Oregon and East Tennessee). This actually has a lot of implications for the work itself. I.e., here demands for tax the rich--in a state where we have consistently rangled with a Constitutional amendment that would bar any form of income based taxation--have a very different character than those places in which this is considered a given, for whatever reasons. That is, a struggle for a "tax the rich" kind of thing has a sharper character of struggle in places where the rich <i>are not already taxed</i> than it does in those places where they are. Like everywhere, in Tennessee the vast majority of the tax burden is on low income people; our revenues are almost totally from the highest sales tax in the country (10.1 cents on the dollar for <i>everything</i> but food, which is something like 8.25 cents ont he dollar; indeed, we have a food sales tax).

    Patrick then says: "we need strategies that orient us towards liberation on a scale of humanity, precisely not the kind of regionalism you are promoting." Well, again, I'm <i>very</i> unclear as to where I have promoted 'regionalism' instead of 'liberation on a scale of humanity.' What I have promoted is an understanding of budget cuts work that is based on very clear differences in the forms that they take in varying geographic locations. I think that in the South there is a sharpness to the work precisely because of a different regional character than what exists in the Northeast or Northwest US, where a liberal class has produced an entirely different set of frustrations that (presumably) lead this work in the direction that you're warning against. We are still living with the very real effects of plantation economy, Jim Crow, and the extractive exploitation of the land that we occupy in Appalachia, all organized under the leadership of a bourgeoisie that has made virtually no concessions, especially in the realm about which we are talking. Where concessions have been made only serve to make the work an even more strategic place for revolutionaries to intervene. Most of the government workforce in our state (like all states) is women, and by comparison to other sections of the workforce, it is disproportionately Black women. If we believe (like I do) that key to making revolution in the US is unity among the 'multinational working class,' then how can we reasonably not participate in the struggles of precisely those people? And, how can we position ourselves within the organizations that rise up around that (some of which are communist built and led, ahem ahem ahem) to push for broader unity--i.e., with immigrants without papers, many of whom do things like work on government paid for construction projects through subcontracting agreements? These are important strategic questions that have a direction toward larger scale than just "save TennCare," tho yes, we think it should be saved (it is no good for our people to die [and this has literally happened in TN] because the State denies them healthcare). When our work (our union's) has been so narrow it is because we (the communists within it) have failed to struggle for sharper aims.

    The reason I think this engagement relates to the zombie of the old debate is because it helps clarify the 'hows' and 'wheres' and 'whys' of our mass work practice. I never said that you or anyone else claimed we shouldn't do it; I said we didn't achieve resolution on why we should, and how we should. So we find ourselves saying stuff like "prepare minds and organize forces for revolution," which I think disassociated from any actual strategic clarity, any programmatic goals, any concrete meaning of what that phrase actually refers to, is indeed empty. Your characterization of my claim about its emptiness is smug and unhelpful, as if I'm advocating against liberation. What I want to know is <i>what you mean by prepare minds and organize forces for revolution</i> in a concrete way. What are the actual practices and acts that signify such organization and preparation? I want to know this because without knowing what you mean, I can't actually see why you think that those things <i>cannot</i> happen in budget cuts work. Absent any clarification whatsoever about what you mean when you say that's what we should be doing, I think it is about clarifying who you think is and is not revolutionary--but without saying what threshold one has to cross in order to earn such a distinction! This is not uncommon here or anywhere on the Left--defining what we cannot do, should not do; it is much less common, and much harder, to clarify what we should be doing in ways that are understandable and not mere sloganeering.

    Your final questions I've gotten at <i>a little</i> here, but I want to get into more, and more deeply; for now, tho, I've got to return to my wage labors at my public sector job. :c

  • Guest (land)

    To Felix: My response was in haste. I did not have the time to read the article in a careful way.

    Rather than go over everything what about this. Yesterday I went to a small demonstration in support of the Egyptian people. I talked to one person who would have agreed with much of what you say. He said "the workers need to have more terrible things happening in their lives - losing more of this, more of that, then they will come out to the anti-war demonstrations because they will support the slogan jobs not war.
    They will understand the nature of this system. What do you think?

    I don't agree with that.

    In relation to Nepal: Are you saying that to make analogies of people in other parts of the world one needs to live there and experience what they experience first-hand?

    You said revolutionaries in the US were so inconsequential that they could never win a seat on the City Council.

    ?????????

  • Guest (Felix Dzerzhinsky)

    <b>Land</b>:

    (1) Believe me, I could tell that you hadn't even read my analysis. <a href="/http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-6/mswv6_11.htm" rel="nofollow">See Point I of this classic</a> for an important note on this matter.

    (2) "The worse the better," "After Hitler, Us!" and similar slogans have a bad history. Obviously I do not endorse them (or rather, it should be obvious if you actually read what I wrote). If you endorse them, I count you as hopeless.

    (3) On Nepal, I was saying that your bringing up Nepal in the context of a discussion of US austerity measures was a frivolous analogy, an attempt to trivialize the importance of struggles against austerity here -- where you presumably live -- by contrasting them to the desperate travails of the struggling poor in a very different country. Symptomatic of your failure to carry out "concrete analysis of concrete conditions" in your own country, or the seventh type of liberalism, in which you fail to carry out investigation of the conditions of the masses and do not show concern for their well-being.

    (4) I did not say that revolutionaries in the US are so inconsequential that they could never win a seat on City Council. I said that that was an implication of <i>your</i> flippant comment that budget concerns should only be of concern "if you're on City Council."

  • For those who doubt that this is a key front in the class struggle:
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-wi-budgetwoes-nation,0,771747.story

  • Guest (celticfire)

    Thomas:

    I want right away to point this out: not all economic crises lead to political crises. It didn't in the 1930's, and it may not now.

    Thomas writes:
    <blockquote>
    To repeat myself, I think your description of the pitfalls of the work are more likely to ensnare it insomuch as we don’t help wave the warning flags about those very pitfalls.
    </blockquote>

    They are real pitfalls. They are paths radical and revolutionary forces have followed before. Take the CPUSA, beginning in the early part of the 20th century as a revolutionary force, and drifting almost entirely into reformism by the the end of the 1930s.

    Why?

    Explain to me how you intend to bring a <b>revolutionary</b> role to these struggles? How to avoid the reformism that is built into them <i>inherently</i> (by leading every acceptable and logically action towards "pressuring" local governments not to cut this or that service, supporting this elected official, etc.) How are you going to break free of that?

    How will you not become foot soldiers for Obama? I mean this seriously.

    <blockquote>
    We are still living with the very real effects of plantation economy, Jim Crow, and the extractive exploitation of the land that we occupy in Appalachia, all organized under the leadership of a bourgeoisie that has made virtually no concessions, especially in the realm about which we are talking.
    </blockquote>

    Yes! I agree entirely - but I ask you to step back and reconsider the implied assumptions in rushing to local projects, largely as individuals or loose networks of activists to "fight the cuts" <i>without</i> (and this piece thus far is missing from every discussion about economic activism) discussing how you will further radicalize the movement, and not be transformed into something further-right in that process.

    I think there are aspects of economic activism that are promising, and even exciting. But just rushing after those aspects without a strategy for dealing with the <i>other aspects</i> is not a holistic approach.

    How will you contend with the nonprofits and their leadership of these movements?

    How does activism centered on "pushing" local governments to make this or that structural change, not cut this or that service, connect to larger communist aims?

    <blockquote>
    What I want to know is what you mean by prepare minds and organize forces for revolution in a concrete way.
    </blockquote>

    I have to disappoint you. Actually making revolutionary and revolutionary preparation isn't something we make on bulleted lists on chart paper and call it a day. It doesn't work like that -- what's more, I am not some revolutionary crystal ball gazer, so I am of no help there either.

    I can offer you this: Kasama and others are thinking about this, and has produced a <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2010/12/31/kasama-reader-1-cores-coalitions-and-strategies-for-revolution/" rel="nofollow">great deal to start off</a>. What's more - I think your question is flawed. It assumes that I (we, or anyone!) can provide very pat and clear understanding of these things and rush off to go bring it to the masses: that is exactly the orientation we want to avoid.

    So no, I can't tell you how to make revolution right now.

    We have discussed(as an on going discussion)<a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2010/09/02/a-communist-beginning-what-it-might-look-like/" rel="nofollow">what a communist beginning might look like</a> which outlines the needs of a new revolutionary organization might looks like. And it's a good start, but we have a long, long (LONG) way to go.

    Warm hugs from the moderately liberal NW! ;)

  • Guest (Labor Shall Rule)

    Where will the U.S. be in a few years? The shortening of the working day—which was conceded by the capitalist class through great struggles that spanned decades—is at risk. You can see it in every sector of the economy today. Rather than using the fixed length of the day to employ, or "intensify" the amount of labor used in a productive unit, millions have been kept out of work. They are the ones who are most at risk under the austerity regime, with Medicaid, SNAP and LIHEAP all facing cuts. And for those that do work, understaffing and working overtime has become the new way to maintain profits.

    Social Security defunding would produce a diaspora of displaced elderly, who either would stockpile into their kids homes (most who, by the way, are late on their payments) or live out on the streets. The rise in crime and deterioration of social solidarity, too, would accompany all of that. Health care would continue to go to those who could afford it, while everyone else hurt at work, shot in the streets, or in a car accident that wasn't their fault will have to pay out of the pocket due to a lack of coverage. When a librarian in New Jersey wakes up to see the pension she was promised as a public employee disappear, or a postal worker in Wyoming to his collective bargaining rights revoked (p.s. this could happen) and his benefits evaporated, do communists sit on the side-line and let them make sense of it themselves? Or do we intervene in our communities and provide a voice?

    It all goes back to what "fightback" should really imply. I think it's a call for those who are working and oppressed to make sense of the social catastrophe that is going on around them. We have to find ways to make that an exercise in activism that translates into a militant desire for political power. I do agree celtic, that such demands sometimes find their way under liberal administration. But dismissing all anti-cut work as tailist treats it all as a very static process. Political explosions can (and have) risen out of crisis. I don't like making appeals to authority as a logical fallacy, but history has proven that a mixture of social inequality and political repression gets people out in the streets.

    Why aren't we having sit-ins at unemployment and Social Security offices? Why aren't we having the homeless occupy abandoned lots and buildings? Where is the desire to create a revolutionary culture, with projects (from everything to study groups to community gardens) that involve members in a socially appealing way? The edge that communism could have is being wasted on discussions of where it will be best to intervene, when the victims of capitalism are watching the social relations around them go against them in the most brutal and unforgiving ways. As Joe Hill might say, "don't type, organize!"

  • Guest (Thomas)

    I'll "give it a rest" after this, but I would just like to point out that the following two statements are very hard to reconcile:

    <blockquote>It does not prepare minds and organize forces for revolution</blockquote>

    &amp; then:

    <blockquote>I have to disappoint you. Actually making revolutionary and revolutionary preparation isn’t something we make on bulleted lists on chart paper and call it a day. It doesn’t work like that — what’s more, I am not some revolutionary crystal ball gazer, so I am of no help there either.
    </blockquote>

    How can you on the one hand claim with such certainty that <i>any</i> work on budget cuts does <b>not</b> do something, and the on the other hand say that you have no idea what that something actually means?

    You are sloganeering, not strategizing.

  • Guest (Jimmy Higgins)

    An idle thought: Has the Wisconsin public workers' eruption, openly drawing inspiration from the revolution in Egypt, led to any rethinking on the part of posters here who skeptical about or scoffed at the article's thesis sentence:<blockquote>The key front in the class struggle in the United States over the rest of this year is going to be over the shape of public budgets.</blockquote>?

  • Guest (Tell No Lies)

    Its a fair question. Comrades?

  • Felix has written a follow-up to this piece in the wake of the events in Madison, Wisconsin. We have reprinted it from Fire on the Mountain: http://kasamaproject.org/2011/02/18/two-three-many-wisconsins/

  • Guest (Jimmy Higgins)

  • Guest (Jimmy Higgins)

    *crickets chirping*

  • Guest (land)

    I will send a reply to the people who asked if anyone was rethinking the importance of publc budget.

    Question - "What does "crickets chirping" mean?

  • Guest (land)

    I will send a reply to the people who asked if anyone was rethinking the importance of publc budget cuts referring to the outrage in Wisconsin.

    Question - "What does "crickets chirping" mean?

  • Guest (Thomas)

    I think "chirping" is Jimmy's effort to point out the total and complete absence of engagement with the events in WI by those whose prognostications here <i>may</i> be changed by those events. If you read Celticfire and Eric's commentary, you get a sense of doubt, pessimism, even contrarianism to the proposition that budget cut struggles are key fronts in class struggle in the US. They made such claims prior to Wisconsin, and have yet to make any effort to create analysis from their position after its onset. Maybe they are wanting to be cautious, or maybe it is hard to see that your position is a dud when tested against real world events.

  • Guest (eric ribellarsi)

    Excuse me, I'm quite sleepy, but just saw this thread and wanted to respond. I've been absent from the site for a few days, much apologies for my delayed re-introduction into this conversation.

    Just to clarify Thomas and others, I was actually not at all trying to cast doubt on the potential of the budget cuts movement to be explosive. I was questioning a logical leap Felix was making..

    That is, if a particular site has the potential to be most explosive, then that is THE key site of struggle. I think things are actually much more complex. There is no doubt in my mind that the budget cuts struggle have been very important. I was the initiator of the budget cuts movement at the University of Houston (which unfortunately wasn't very successful for a number of reasons). But the point I'm trying to make here is that I am not trying to make a universal dismissal of budget cuts movements.

    What I AM trying to do is problematize how we understand the relationship between these struggles and a communist strategic orientation, which often includes sending cadre to places which may be largely uneventful for long periods of time. There are many other factors involved than just militancy and explosiveness that we need to answer. One example: where will people have the greatest potential to draw revolutionary lessons?

    In many ways, the budget cuts movement also has the potential to interact and exacerbate other contradictions, which has some additional implications that are pretty exciting. But I was questioning a logical leap that declared something THE key struggle without discussing its potential in relationship to a strategy for revolution.

  • I think this should settle the question of the potential of these fights to radicalize people:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5roWQIyfpSw]

  • Guest (RW Harvey)

    Righteous! Beautiful! Breathe deep the "Worldwide Rebel Songs" on the internationalist winds aswirl around the planet...

  • Guest (Nat W.)

    Take it easy, but take it!

  • Guest (zerohour)

    "Justice is beautiful."