Category Archives: The Left

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

Nationalize Them

You don’t see this in The New York Times every day:

THE Barclays interest-rate scandal, HSBC’s openness to money laundering by Mexican drug traffickers, the epic blunders at JPMorgan Chase — at this point, four years after Wall Street wrecked the global economy, does anyone really believe we can regulate the big banks? And if we broke them up, would they really stay broken up?

Most liberals in Washington — President Obama included — keep hoping the banks can be more tightly controlled but otherwise left as is. That’s the theory behind the two-year-old Dodd-Frank law, which Republicans and Wall Street are still working to eviscerate.

Some economists in and around the University of Chicago, who founded the modern conservative tradition, had a surprisingly different take: When it comes to the really big fish in the economic pond, some felt, the only way to preserve competition was to nationalize the largest ones, which defied regulation.

The other worthwhile part of this piece is a reminder that nationalization isn’t just some horrible sin that only bad people like Soviets have committed; it’s happened in the US, and not even that long ago:

We tend to forget that we did, in fact, nationalize General Motors in 2009; the government still owns a controlling share of its stock. We also essentially nationalized the American International Group, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, and the government still owns roughly 60 percent of its stock.

The author of this op-ed, Gar Alperovitz, presents nationalization mainly as a strategy to preserve competitive markets, but another potential benefit of this strategy could be accountability.  Big corporations don’t answer to anyone but big shareholders and management, which is part of what makes them so dangerous.  Nationalization could be a way to add some sort of democratic accountability to these firms.  Of course, that depends on how democratic your government is, and the US government appears to be increasingly less so.  But if you want an economy “of the people, by the people, and for the people”–and why not aspire to that in the economic realm if we do in the political?–some good strategies seem to be nationalization of some of the larger industries and some form of worker ownership/management of smaller and medium-sized firms.  This latter approach, which often takes the form of worker cooperatives, has worked marvelously for Spain’s Mondragon Corporation and seems to be prospering among the Evergreen Cooperatives, of which Alperovitz happens to be a leading theorist and backer.

Image by lambdachialpha

Literacy Militancy

Two Sandinistas

An interesting little story about the Sandinistas (FSLN) I came across in this piece on anti-intellectualism and leftist activism, which the author situates in the context of a former teacher of hers reporting on the FSLN in the 1980s:

She had arrived shortly after the FSLN began implementing Carlos Fonseca Amador’s vision of a strong relationship between literacy and militancy. Fonseca Amador was a librarian, teacher, and founder of the FSLN. Years after his death, his ideas lived on, and took the shape of literacy brigades. This visionary project sent 100,000 volunteers into peasant communities to end illiteracy. Drawing from the example set by the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which literally eliminated illiteracy in that country, they adapted the concept to their own unique conditions. Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal coordinated the effort, and described it this way: “not only would we teach people letters and what those letters mean, we would also make it possible for peasant farmers and urban workers to learn about their own situation and the economic, social, and political context in which they lived. We were going to teach them to answer questions like, why am I poor? We wanted them to learn to distinguish between a tragedy like a drought or an earthquake and a tragedy like poverty. We wanted them to learn that nature provokes hurricanes while human beings create poverty. Making this distinction is what conscientización is all about.”

As usual, check out the whole thing. (It’s not long!)

Image by Robert Croma