All Politics is Local – and Federal

This weekend I took the time to read several long-form NYT Magazine articles I’d been saving up, and I must admit I was disappointed.  I often look forward to the longer pieces from the paper’s magazine, but the two I focused on were a bit of a disappointment.  This biographical piece on Paul Ryan was informative, though I found the corresponding New Yorker article much more readable and illuminating.  More disappointing was Jonathan Mahler’s “Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America,” on the Occupy movement in Oakland, CA.  It was like Mahler was going out of his way to disparage the movement and deny that it had any relevance or legitimate purpose.  He treats Oakland’s occupiers like a bunch of crackpots and anachronisms who should really be seen as a footnote to other problems and processes of the city and the region: huge municipal budget deficits, a dysfunctional police department at risk of falling into federal receivership, and the ostensible inevitability of gentrification, to name the most important.

Many folks involved with Occupy Oakland in some way have penned responses to Mahler’s poor journalism, and of these I just read Darwin Bond-Graham’s “Oakland: Incubator for Meaningful Local Politics.”  Bond-Graham is a sociologist from Oakland, and he argues that Mahler’s piece ignores important pieces of Oakland’s radical history (most notably a Chicano movement rooted in the 1970s and the more recent “Oscar Grant Rebellion,” a response to the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police.  Bond-Graham thinks these omissions illustrate a sloppiness in Mahler’s piece and contribute to the latter’s ignorance of the movement as a powerful instance of and model for local politics:

Occupy Oakland was never about the boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces that could only be appealed to with signs and slogans and moral suasion. For those who have taken part in it, Oakland’s most recent wave of protests was always about taking direct action to confront the immediate and real problems Oaklanders are facing, not just because of the financial crisis, but because of decades of disinvestment, police militarization, and austerity measures imposed by local politicians. Oaklanders were contesting the shut down schools, shuttered libraries, derelict parks, and the policies that have left much of the city in a state of disrepair.

He goes on to describe the recent rehabilitation of an abandoned building as the Victor Martinez People’s Library.  Despite a police crackdown, the library appears to be functioning still.

An older library produced by Occupy Oakland

These are powerful points, as Occupy Oakland’s strength seems to have been adapting protest to local conditions, but I think Bond-Graham’s viewpoint obscures something important as well.  He breezily dismisses the “boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces,” but such a strategy is neither boring nor exclusively “liberal,” nor are its only tools “signs and slogans and moral suasion.”  Like it or not, the United States federal government is the most powerful player in the country, and its interventions in politics and society have a force and a staying power that nothing else does.  Besides producing an aversion to hierarchy and organization, the strong anarchist strains of the Occupy movement also seem to favor an emphasis on the local.  But if Occupy Oakland and similar movements truly aim to challenge, as they claim, transnational capital as well as corrupt local governments, their focus cannot be exclusively local.  Local conditions are, after all, determined by national and transnational forces, too, and the challenge to these forces must be mounted on all these levels.

American radical movements of all sorts have consistently leveraged the power of the federal government, directly or indirectly, to effect change in society.  Radical Republicans in Congress were largely responsible for Reconstruction in the South; left-wing forces in Depression-era America helped provided pressure that contributed to the establishment of the American welfare state under FDR; the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s were instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and related legislation.  You could of course debate whether these outcomes were ideal or complete, lasting (the gains of Reconstruction were not), or even good.  But the fact remains that the federal government carries weight that nothing else does, and if the left hopes to truly change American politics and society for the better, it must not forget the importance of this central institution.

Photo by Oakland Local

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Comments

  • Matt  On August 20, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    woah woah whoah. I enjoyed this quite a bit, I havent been following the occupy movement and especially not Oakland’s but, but as I think you make quite a jump there at the end. It seems like in the comments you quote from Bond-Graham are specifically rejecting being part of whatever it is we traditional think of as the left and then you go ahead and say, “if the left hopes to truly change american politics or society” as though it’s all one giant conflated thing. I dont disagree about the power and importance of the federal government but I dont necessarily think the occupy movement has to directly engage with it to be successful.

    • aaronbek  On August 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      Well, no, I certainly don’t think “the Left” is one big, monolothic thing, but I do distinguish leftists from liberals, for one thing. What I meant was two main things: (1) Local conditions are determined by local causes but also national and international causes, and you can’t solve local problems only by addressing local causes; and (2) Occupy sets its sights high, aiming not only to ameliorate local conditions but also to topple the power of “transnational capital.” Not every Occupy activist would endorse this, I’m sure, but some do, and many in Occupy Oakland did/do as well. When you set your sights that high, you have to work out your strategy correspondingly.

      • Matt  On August 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm

        Fair. And I bow to you superior knowledge of the movement. But I do still hold that the over application of ‘terms’ and the ideals allegedly accompanying them have been a plague on any realistic local impact the movement was going to be capable of making, having suspected all along that this would be they best they could hope to achieve.

      • Aaron  On August 21, 2012 at 11:42 pm

        I’m no expert, to be sure, though, and I think that’s probably the most realistic assessment. I guess I just like to think that a more accurate theorization of what you’re trying to accomplish and how you might accomplish it will lead to greater long-term success. But to be honest, I’m not particularly a fan of Occupy anyway, for a variety of reasons, so I’m not too invested in defending their goals!

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