Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 11:00PM
There is a revival in some circles of the word "socialism." In an open letter to The Nation Bhaskar Sunkara a young self-styled "socialist" argues that liberalism--including much of what's published in that magazine--seems well-intentioned but inadequate, and that the solution lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism - more.
It's not clear what Sunkara means by such terminology. He never deconstructs the military-industrial complex which was a prime focus of '60s "radicals" aka socialists.
As an old unreconstructed '60's radical, now an aging pre-baby boomer and grandpa, I'm pleased to know that somebody out there is willing to take seriously the term "socialism" which is reviled, feared and misunderstood by so many in this nation. Too many in America can't distinguish "democratic socialism" from "totalitarian communism."
My concept of "socialism" harkens back to Marx who famously said back in the day "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need."
Democratic socialism is a part of the socio-political fabric of contemporary European politics in one form or another - as the government de jure in places like the Scandinavian countries or in much of the democratic world from Canada to Japan as the loyal opposition. And the oft maligned New Deal "liberalism" owes its soul to socialist ideas/ideals.
In the USA progressives, liberals or socialists, grounded their beliefs on concepts of social and economic justice. What is termed "positive" freedom or the "social gospel" envisions a collective not individualistic "pursuit of happiness." It requires an engaged citizenry and a regulatory regime to checkmate "bad actors" who use the system to line their pockets.
The problem with Americans is that we don't know our own history of class struggle and protest politics.
But aside from the defunct Occupy Wall Street movement, I see no evidence on the streets, in the academy or in the corridors of power that "socialism" is on the resurgence. Quite the contrary as Mr. Sunkara suggests what we have is "technocratic liberalism" and "welfare liberalism."
As an illustration of the bankruptcy of contemporary liberalism my fellow Oregonians only have to look at the ludicrous politics of Portlandia to see how intellectually rudderless contemporary so-called progressive politics has become. We just finished a food fight over "fluoridation" which was a hot button issue in the '50s for the Right.
Fluoridation was a John Bircher issue in the '50s, now it's on the Portlandia enviro hit list. Go figure!
And when one spends time in the Salem Puzzle Palace, one sees suburban Demos and Governor "Happiness" wanting to lavish tax breaks on the "traded sector" of corporate Oregon as their idea of job creation. But many of such traded sector global entities out source production to low wage nations like Bangladesh.
This leaves a demoralized and intellectually incoherent GOP to be the defender of the "old economy" of the family farm, small business and family values. There was a time when progressives were against the banks, railroads and for the little guy - now in Oregon at least - they are the mouth pieces for the "job creators." How and why did this happen?
Politics is about the allocation of resources. A budget is a values statement. When values become private sector centered the public interest evaporates.
The devolution of the Democratic Party and progressive politics took a major hit when Bill Clinton ran as a "new Democrat" - as a pro big business, let's make government smaller neo-liberal. A series of failed presidential campaigns did the D's in - Humphrey in '68, McGovern in '72, Carter's malaise in '76 leading to the Reagan-Bush I era.
To win back the presidency Clinton concluded that old fashioned liberalism was dead and that only a corporatist anti-welfare version was marketable. Remember Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, attempted health care reform while rejecting single payer (sound familiar?) and ran the tables with a good economy during the boom years of the '90s.
Beware of politicians who can sing your favorite hymns and like soulless used car salesmen are willing to do anything to make the sale.
Clinton's electoral formula for victory combined southern white voters, African-American voters, labor union voters plus an emergent woman's, youth and gay vote. This coalition wasn't much different than the one which elected FDR. Truman, JFK and LBJ. And eight years later Barack Obama would ride a similar horse to victory and repeat in 2012.
But the Clinton and Obama victories would be more "personal" victories not ideologically transformational victories. People just threw the "bums" out in the case of Bush I and Bush II - largely due to a bad economy. But there was no underlying message coming out of these victories and progressives were just glad to have one of their own back in the Oval Office.
Electing an African-American POTUS turns out to be more symbolism than substance! Will Hillary be any different?
And ever since 9/11 the nation has been blinded by the war on terrorism while divided by the old guard of the GOP fixated on stopping Obama and the the Tea Party trying to roll the clock back to the 1920s. Both have deflected attention from the bread and butter issues of the past - family wage jobs, tax fairness, saving the middle class and the safety net.
Now that Obama has downsized drones and the War on Terrorism, maybe we can get back to the "economy stupid."
Aside from 9/11's distraction, progressives have focused too much on niche litmus test issues which targeted at upper income liberal voters - a woman's right of choice, gay rights and the environment. The traditional commitment to workers rights has been lost in the wake of debates over immigration, NAFTA and quotas.
Litmus test, single issue, niche political messaging is a slippery slope to nowhere!
So where does this leave the Left today? One only has to look at the data points here in Washington County now a solid Democratic county. Thanks to Intel, Nike et al we are the economic engine of Oregon. We have the lowest unemployment rate in Oregon, 6%. But we are also are a county with rising poverty, a large Latino population and the underemployed.
We are a county of contradictions where some live in the "best of times" while others live in the "worst of times." And what do our "electeds" focus on - jobs promised by Nike and Intel on the premise of tax breaks which nobody else gets. Oregon has been fully Clintonized. Obama era has not changed the mood music and Kitz plays the same tune.
Our local traded sector corps not only out source abroad but when they hire locals they are put on contracts with no benefits. This is the brave new economy our high school and college grads will inherit. And if one doesn't have the requisite skill set - you get to sit at the back of the global economy bus, one step away from homelessness.
Homelessness is decreasing but we have 5000 on the housing authority's wait list. It will take the county 150 years to met current demand... Oh Joy!
Now lest one thinks this once "radical" 60s dude has thrown in the towel, you've not been paying attention. I'm fully committed to the Tom Hayden brand of Democratic (socialist) politics. But I don't talk "ideology" much these days, I focus on community organizing around local issues - homelessness, stop the stink, foreclosure and land use.
You won't get anywhere in Washington County or Oregon by raising the banner of "socialism."
One can make a difference by coalition building issue by issue fighting for clean air and water, stopping predatory banks and reminding legislators from the "other" Oregon how good things were when IKE was POTUS and presided over the biggest public works project in history - the building of the interstate highway system including I-5.
So while wistfully waiting for the Promised Land of Democratic Socialism we have work to do saving Tom McCall's legacy and keeping Oregon green!
This requires an activist federal and state government willing to invest in people not corporations, willing to invest in infrastructure which puts people to work and not waiting for the marketplace to raise all boats via trickle down economics. You can call it what you want - liberalism, socialism or just common sense - the point is to "just do it."
The Tea Party and Occupy WS have one thing in common their loathing of banks too big to fail. Maybe that's the basis for a grand bargain!
In 1917 Lenin brandished the phrase "all power to the Soviets," that ended badly. I prefer "power to the people" - the people in this case being residents of Portlandia involved in neighborhood associations, in Washington County in CPOs, the family farmer, the small business person and the 32 groups of WC-CAN who remind us "all politics is local."
If the 60s taught us anything it was the power of "bottom up" politics. Today we have too much "top down" politics.